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Science: Overfishing Policy

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Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 22, 2008; 10:00 AM

Washington Post staff writer Juliet Eilperin was online Monday, Sept. 22 at 10 a.m. ET to discuss whether overfishing can be controlled by giving fisheries a share of the bounty, rather than having them compete with other harvesters.

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Read more in: Study Suggests Sharing the Catch Could Save Fisheries (Post, Sept. 22).

A transcript follows.

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Arlington Va.: On what basis would shares be allocated in the future once those individuals who recorded catches between 1990 and 2004 are out of the picture?

Juliet Eilperin: Since someone can sell a given catch share to another individual if he or she retires, those shares continue to stay in the system even after someone retires. No matter what, those shares would be transfered in some way to another fishing interest.

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Ballston, Va: Sharing the catch won't prevent fish from being taken before reaching sexually maturity and reproducing, before stocks can rebound from the current and past over fishing etc. It is not solving the initial issue of overfishing.

Its like our beltway. Rather than solving the problem of too much traffic, they put in hot lanes and cut down trees all along the road.

Or people who gain weight. Rather than working out and eating right, they guy a pair of pants one size up.

Fix the problem at the source-stop taking fish rather than alleviate the problem.

Juliet Eilperin: What several people, such as UCSB professor Christopher Costello, point out, is that it matters how you set the overall fishing quota in the first place. If you base it on scientific data, then presumably, you're not letting fishing interests catch more fish than is sustainable. If you rely on the more traditional methods, they are much more imprecise: fishing boats will compete to catch as much fish as they can in a given time frame, and if they haul in too many fish, the only option managers have is to cut back the quota the following year. They often balk at doing that.

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Asinpeter, Nev.: I find myself increasingly constrained by the eco-friendly dietary restrictions imposed on me by friends and colleagues. Will the expansion of catch-share systems exacerbate the problem?

Juliet Eilperin: Well, I suppose only you can decide how much you care about sustainable fisheries, and how much you care about what your friends and colleagues think of you. Theoretically, if fisheries begin to rebound you will have more types of fish you can eat (since not as many species will be depleted) but this is a long-term prospect, not an immediate one.

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Teaneck, N.J.: Do fisheries with a catch-share system appreciate -- I mean, truly appreciate -- the benefits that flow from such a quote system?

Juliet Eilperin: Well, I don't think the authors of this Science paper interviewed the fish to see whether they appreciate the catch share system or not. The fishing boat operators I interviewed did say they appreciated the new system. They said they hoped it would continue in the future so that their small children, many of whom are picky eaters and now rely heavily on eating tofu, would have the opportunity to eat fish when they're older and have more sophisticated palates.

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Arlington, Va.: Who decides how shares of the fishery are allocated? Are these rights auctioned off? That would seem to be the fairest method and one that would actually raise revenue.

Juliet Eilperin: The shares are determined by the regional fishery management councils, who adopt a specific formula that can vary from place to place. In every case it's based on some measure of past performance, and it's not auctioned off to the highest bidder since that would simply reward the wealthiest fishing operators in a given fishery.

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Washington, D.C.: Most scientists agree that in order to end overfishing better compliance with catch limits is needed. Do catch shares improve such compliance? What makes catch shares different than conventional management?

Juliet Eilperin: I answered part of this question earlier, so you can look at that reply, but to be more specific, the West Coast groundfish fishery is considering adopting a catch share system in November that would specifically require quota holders to account for every single fish they catch, whether it's by having on-board observers or video cameras. That's a much more stringent system than a traditional fishery, but you could apply that same requirement to a traditional system.

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Washington, D.C.: The study made a strong case in support of catch shares, so why is it so rarely used in this country?

Juliet Eilperin: As the article notes, there was a congressional ban on adopting catch share systems for several years, between 1996 and late 2002, so that delayed their adoption for quite a while. Also, the fishing industry as a whole tends to be pretty resistent to change, so switching the way fishing rights are allocated is a big deal, and many people question the idea of privatizing a public resource, which is what this system does.

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Mount Rainier, Md.: The current management clearly has failed. Catch shares seem to be a way to deal with the tragedy of the commons. What are other natural resources that have been handled this way?

Juliet Eilperin: That's a good question. Another similar system is the grazing permits that the federal government allows ranchers to have on public land. But these permits are priced well below the market rate, so this tends to lead to unsustainable grazing practices, even though it's granting a private individual rights to a public resource.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Juliet, Can you go into further detail on how this will help the financial security and physical safety of the fishermen who would use the catch share system?

Juliet Eilperin: I think the financial security aspect was covered in the article--if the fishery thrives rather than crashes, fishermen will do better financially over time--but on the physical safety front, there's some evidence to show that a catch share system makes things safer because you don't have as many boats in the water at a given time and boat operators have more flexibility in choosing when they head to sea. In other words, they can sit out bad weather because they're not concerned someone else will catch all the fish before they can head out.

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Sarasota, Fla.: How does a catch share system help fishermen sustain their business over time?

Juliet Eilperin: I think I just answered this question, but to put it another way: if a specific stock collapses, then a fishing boat operator will be out of business altogether, because there won't be any fish left to catch.

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Charleston, S.C.: I understand that catch shares end overfishing, but how? Are there other conservation benefits besides ending overfishing? I read another report that said that catch shares can benefit habitat as well. Is this true and if so, how?

Juliet Eilperin: In terms of protecting habitat, it really just depends on what rules the federal managers set for a given fishery. If they restrict destructive fishing methods, such as trawling, that protects habitat, rather than a catch share system itself.

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Munich, Germany: How exactly are the quotas allotted? Are only long term fishermen given a percentage of the overall limit? What happens when these fishermen retire? Can they pass on or sell their quotas?

Juliet Eilperin: The quotas are alloted through the regional fishery management councils and while they all have slightly different methods, they are based on an individual's past performance in a given fishery. Once a person decides to retire or opt out of a fishery, he or she can tell the catch share to someone else, in the same way taxi drivers in some cities can sell their cab medallion to another aspiring cab driver who's hoping to enter the market.

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Beavercreek, Ohio: It would seem that with the "catch share" system, if all a fishery can do is catch the same percentage as was caught last year and no individual fishery can have "an excessive share" then, there's no way for an individual fishery to grow relative to his neighbors. All fisheries will always have the same relative "wealth" and none of them will ever be able improve their lot. How can individual fisheries excel in that type of system (as in any other business where there are always ways to differentiate yourself from and move ahead of competitors)?

Juliet Eilperin: The overall quota for a given fishery is set each year by a regional fishery management council. While the way it's set varies from region to region, under legislation passed in 2006, this overall quota will be based on the best available science within a couple of years. So if a fishery is thriving, federal managers can allow fishermen to catch more fish overall, which in turn will benefit the men and women holding catch shares. Plus, these quotas don't affect things such as marketing and distribution, so there are plenty of ways a given individual can outcompete his or her neighbors in the marketplace.

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Brooklyn, N.Y.: Catch shares seem to work very well for both fish populations and fishermen in the few places they've been tried. How come we don't have more of them?

Juliet Eilperin: I wrote on this question earlier, but one thing I would note is that before this article came out, much of the information concerning the success of catch share fisheries was anecdotal. Now that it's been subjected to a more rigid scientific analysis, this might influence the way policy makers view this management approach.

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Washington, D.C.: Contrary to the caption on the photo accompanying your article, there are published scientific reports that organge roughy stocks in New Zealand have done very poorly under catch share programs. The reason is that because they are so slow growing, the economic incentive is to extract the resource and invest the money earned in something that will provide an economic return sooner. This implies that catch shares are not appropriate for these type of slow growing, late maturing fish species.

Juliet Eilperin: I agree that orange roughy is vulnerable because it takes so long to mature, but that's a question of what overall quotas the fishery managers are setting, not catch shares in particular. If orange roughy is struggling, which would be in keeping with my general impression, then the managers need to restrict the overall quota further. And for people who worry about sustainable fish, they should avoid eating orange roughy altogether.

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Juliet Eilperin: Thanks for all the good questions, since we seem to be out of questions, I'm signing off now. Juliet

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