Study Suggests Sharing the Catch Could Save Fisheries

By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 22, 2008

Amid the collapse of once-rich fisheries around the world, policymakers, fishermen and environmentalists have been debating a controversial question: Can a fishery be saved by giving those who harvest the sea a guaranteed share of its bounty, rather than having them compete to see who can extract the most the fastest?

A study published Friday in the journal Science, conducted by two economists and an ecologist, suggests that the answer is yes. The authors -- two from the University of California at Santa Barbara and one from the University of Hawaii -- surveyed 121 fisheries worldwide where individuals receive a predetermined portion of a fishery's catch limit and found that they were half as likely to have collapsed as those without a "catch share" system. In addition, the researchers found that when a fishery that had relied on traditional methods -- such as seasonal limits or overall catch restrictions -- was converted to using catch shares, the change did not just slow the fishery's decline; it stopped it.

Once people are given a fixed share in a fishery, said lead author Christopher Costello, they are less likely to overfish, because they have a financial interest in having the species thrive.

"It's like having shares in a stock of a company: If the value of the company goes up, the value of the shares go up," said Costello, an economist at the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management at UCSB. "You don't just own a percentage of the catch this year, you own the right to a percentage of the catch every year."

New Zealand, Australia and Iceland pioneered the concept of catch shares in the 1980s, and the United States recently embraced it. When Congress in 2006 reauthorized the law that oversees U.S. fisheries, the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, President Bush pushed for a provision instituting individual fishing shares, or quotas, in half of the country's fisheries by 2010.

"We've moved well beyond theory into the realm of real experience and hard science that demonstrates the benefits" of an individual quota system, said James L. Connaughton, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality. "This changes all the bad incentives to good incentives," he added. "When fishermen own their share of the stock, they become partners in enforcement rather than bystanders."

In what federal officials call "dedicated access" fisheries, each catch share is allocated to an individual, a fishing cooperative, a community or a sector. The United States has 12 such systems, which account for 20 percent of the U.S. fishery's commercial value. The first one was established in 1991 in the mid-Atlantic's surf clam and ocean quahog fisheries, with Alaska's Pacific halibut and sablefish fishery following suit.

Until the Alaska halibut fishery converted to a share system in 1995, fishing competition was so intense that the season had declined from four months to two or three days. Today, the season lasts nearly eight months, and a fishing boat can be in the waters until it has caught its allotted share.

But the push for individual shares sparked a backlash in Congress as Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) and others questioned how regional fishery management councils were allocating shares. Congress imposed a moratorium on the quotas in 1996 and extended it until late 2002.

"In retrospect, it was just pushing a little bit harder than people were willing to accept," said Galen R. Tromble, chief of the domestic fisheries division at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Some feared they would be left out when federal managers doled out shares, he said.

Each share system operates differently, Tromble said, but federal guidelines dictate that anyone who has "substantially participated" in a fishery deserves part of the overall quota and that no individual can have "an excessive share." In the red snapper fishery in the Gulf of Mexico, which switched to a share system on Jan. 1, 2007, managers set quotas based on the 10 best consecutive catches an individual had brought in from 1990 to 2004.

David Krebs, who owns Ariel Seafoods in Destin, Fla., and has been fishing there since 1969, owns almost 6 percent of the gulf's annual red snapper catch, just below the maximum share. Krebs noted that red snapper used to fetch $1.50 a pound dockside and has risen to $4.50 a pound as the fishing pressure has eased. He calls the new system "truly a success story."

"It's the most versatile tool that allows a fisherman to fish when the market needs the fish," Krebs said.

Not everyone likes the idea, however. Marianne Cufone, who directs the fish program at the advocacy group Food & Water Watch, called the new red snapper management program "questionable," saying some fishermen without shares are likely to catch the overfished species and toss it overboard. "We really don't have a good count on what we're losing now, and that's a problem," Cufone said.

Costello, the study's lead author, said policymakers need to understand that the approach will not work if they do not set scientifically based limits on the total catch, along with gear requirements to help protect the fishery.

In early November, federal managers will vote on whether to adopt a quota system for the West Coast trawl ground-fish fishery, which boasts nearly 20 commercially valuable species and 63 others. Chuck Cook, project leader of the Sustainable Fisheries Group at UCSB, said he hopes the change will "improve both the ecological and economic performance of this fishery." A draft plan requires quota holders to account for every fish they bring in.

David H. Festa of the advocacy group Environmental Defense Fund said that over time, the expansion of catch share systems will ensure fishery managers are "managing abundance, rather than a slide to scarcity."

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