Sharing the (reduced) bounty


The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration hasn't made a secret of its preference for catch shares as a management tool for the nation's fisheries. And Friday, the agency, which is headed by marine biologist and fishing quota proponent Jane Lubchenco, released a formal policy that pushes catch shares as the primary management tool for America's commercial fisheries.

Catch shares, as detailed in Matt Jenkins' article "The Most Cooked Up Catch," are a little like cap and trade for the ocean. Managers set a total number of fish to be caught, then divide that number up into shares. Those shares can be bought and sold, or even temporarily leased, among fishermen in an area. The total number set is determined by the best available science and is supposed to be a sustainable level of catch for the fishery. For many fishermen, the new quotas will likely be lower than they're used to harvesting.

Fishing boats in Monterey Bay, Calif. California will institute a catch share program for groundfish in January 2010. Photo courtesy Flickr user John Beagle.

Responses to catch share management programs have typically been mixed, with extreme positions and rhetoric on both sides. Some opponents, like the groups Ecotrust and Food and Water Watch, argue that catch share programs are "privatizing the ocean" and that they push out smaller fishermen, who, when given a smaller catch under the share system, are pressured into selling their allocations to bigger fisherman.

Some scientists concerned about the collapse of fisheries worldwide have high praise for the ability of catch shares to halt and reverse catastrophic ecosystem failure caused by overfishing, while others offer a more nuanced perspective, saying the success depends on how you measure baselines and the total catch numbers set, which often need tweaking as seasons pass. Pro-market, cap and trade environmental groups like Environmental Defense seem so in love with the management tool they would  likely put a catch share on every fishery -- something the NOAA policy shies away from, saying "Catch shares may not be the best management option for every fishery or sector." (Read the full 25-page NOAA policy [PDF])

The policy's language is cautious. NOAA stresses the need for setting scientifically-based fish recovery targets. It also offers technical expertise and support in helping overfished regions set up these management plans.  The agency also encourages allowing fishermen to trade and sell shares amongst themselves, but also recognizes that share transfers have frequently led to large shifts in who controls the catch.

Catch share programs almost inevitably lead to more control of the ocean's bounty by big operators and big boats. Small fisherman, frequently operating on thin margins already, will sell their shares to bigger boats. This may be a good deal for the boat owner selling their allocations, but crews on beached boats often find themselves S.O.L., joining the ranks of America's blue collar unemployed. And fishing towns, once home to diversified small businesses, end up being dominated by a few big players. Edward Backus, the president of Ecotrust, a group that works on environmental and social issues, offered compelling testimony [PDF] before Congress in March that laid out his reservations about catch share programs and outlined some of the negative impacts to fishing communities.

Scientists may be figuring out how to solve the critical problem of overfishing. The trickier problem -- that the economic shakeup caused by their solutions often devastates the economies of fishing communities -- has yet to be addressed.

Stephanie Paige Ogburn is HCN's Online Editor

High Country News Classifieds