For all the good news that comes with catch shares, there is a downside. They often bring heavy costs to fishing crewmen. And just as any acknowledgment of the end of the race for fish is taboo on Deadliest Catch, the social cost of catch shares has essentially been relegated to footnotes in the reams of slick literature put out by pro-IFQ environmental groups.
A recent study by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council found that, since the crab catch-share system was implemented, and the number of boats on the water subsequently reduced, average revenues per boat have almost quadrupled. But the deckhands on those same boats have only slightly more than doubled their pay, on average. That's largely because when boat owners lease quota from other boats to stack onto theirs, they pay heavy lease fees, much of which they pass on to the crew.
For at least some crewmen, that casts into sharp relief the divide between how boat owners and their crew have fared under rationalization. Many boat owners were struggling before rationalization. "Some of these guys were desperate to get a catch-share program so they could sell out," says Linda Kozak, the Kodiak-based consultant. "We call it a graceful exit."
With rationalization, those owners suddenly became armchair fishermen. "A lot of the guys just park their boat and lease their quota out," says Steve Branson, a Kodiak-based crewman. "They just go to the mailbox and pick up their royalty check."
In a hard-won concession, those captains who didn't own their own vessels received 3 percent of the total catch shares. But the deckhands received nothing. Traditionally, they could buy into a boat by increments, becoming a part owner as they proved their mettle. Now, though, they have to purchase catch shares before they can even think about fishing on their own.
There's also some evidence of a new emphasis on running boats as cheaply as possible. With a fixed catch, the main way to increase your margin is to drive down operating costs. "It used to be about how much you could catch," one former crewman told the authors of another recent North Pacific Fishery Management Council report. "Now it's about how cheap you can catch it."
That report also noted a growing concern among crewmen that boat owners are now more likely to hire deckhands, including undocumented immigrants, on a wage basis, rather than dealing them in on a share of the boat's earnings, as has traditionally been done.
But the biggest impact has been shouldered by crewmen who have lost their jobs on boats that no longer fish. For each boat that has left the fishery, five to six crew jobs went with it. Mark Fina, the fishery council economist, has estimated that as many as 975 crewmen -- more than half the total who worked in the fishery -- have lost their crabbing jobs since rationalization.
And for those crew members, the exit from the business may not be that graceful. Unlike laid-off auto workers, they receive no severance package. Though the evidence is mostly anecdotal, it seems fairly clear that crewmen who lost their jobs on Alaska-based boats from ports like Kodiak have had to leave for work elsewhere. "Some guy, now, instead of being a fisherman in Alaska like he always dreamed of," says Rick Lauber, "is making tires in a factory in Dayton."
The asymmetrical impacts of the boat consolidation rankle many former crewmen. "Sure, there were too many boats. But whose fault is that?" says Corey Eisenbarth, another deckhand. "The people that built the boats and over-exploited the fishery are the same guys who got all the money."
But many boat owners argue that they should, by rights, receive the bulk of the catch shares and the money that comes with them. Unlike deckhands, they've made large capital investments in the business. And, they point out, rationalization simply hastened what was an inevitable fate for the people who are now jobless. "That was going to happen regardless, because we didn't have a sustainable fleet size," says Edward Poulsen.
That may be the unavoidable bottom line in most fisheries, whether they're run under catch shares or not. Julie Wormser is Environmental Defense's New England Oceans Program director. For the past several years, she's been closely involved in the creation of the new IFQ plan for the groundfish fishery in New England, a region famously battered by years of mismanagement and intense competition for dwindling stocks of fish. Finding equitable solutions for out-of-work crewmen is "the touchiest question," she concedes. "It's a real cost."
But she argues that a traditional derby-style fishery -- like the one that viewers tune in every week to supposedly see on Deadliest Catch -- is pretty brutal, too. "Everybody's fishing to put everybody else out of business," she says. "And the alternatives aren't catch shares versus some dreamy universe where everybody has a good job. It's catch shares versus a continued downward spiral."