- New research points to the efficacy of catch share programs in the U.S. by halting the ‘race to fish’.
- According to the study, catch share programs extend fishing seasons significantly, benefitting fish populations and species impacted by bycatch.
- However catch shares remain controversial at the policy level because they can lead to consolidation of the fishing industry, though some programs are working on mitigating this by barring corporations from participating.
In marine fisheries, the infamous “race to fish” has long been known to shorten fishing seasons and deplete fish populations. In an archetypal display of the tragedy of the commons — the overexploitation of a shared natural resource — fishing seasons are often characterized by an intense race to land as many fish as possible until total limits are reached. A potential solution, according to a new study published in Nature, could be the implementation of catch shares programs.
“This is the first time we see broad systematic evidence that catch shares are slowing the race to fish,” Dr. Martin Smith, Professor of Environmental Economics at Duke University, said, adding that the team’s results show “systematic benefits from market-based regulation that could be relevant to a broad range of environmental policy challenges.”
In a meta-analysis, environmental economists at Duke – including Smith and PhD candidates Anna Birkenbach and David Kaczan – tried to determine if a catch shares policy attenuated the race to fish by analyzing 39 U.S. fisheries.
The researchers examined each “fishery” – a unique target species or group of similar species – before and after implementation of catch shares programs. The broad study is the first of its kind; previous analyses used only selected fisheries and anecdotal evidence to examine potential benefits of catch share programs.
The study concluded that catch shares significantly lengthen fishing seasons across a wide range of fisheries, reducing the concentration of catches, or “landings,” over time.
Catch shares, in short, is a type of management system that allocates individual fishers or groups of fishers secured rights to an allotted portion of the total allowable catch (TAC). In other words, each person is guaranteed a piece of the pie, regardless of when they land their catch.
For example, Linda Behnken, Executive Director of the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association, explained that fishermen in Alaska looking to fish for halibut or sablefish would need to first purchase shares in that fishery from a previous owner. Behnken said that while prices vary based on fishing area and vessel size, the average market price for halibut quota, or shares, in Southeast and South-central Alaska is currently $60 per pound.
Kelly Denit, head of the Domestic Fisheries Division in NOAA’s Office of Sustainable Fisheries, noted that catch shares offer a variety of beneficial impacts, including combatting overfishing and reducing the costs to produce seafood. She said such programs have also been shown to reduce market gluts – a sudden excess of a certain type of fish – and mitigate bycatch, where non-target fish or other animals like seabirds and dolphins are killed inadvertently.
“Catch share programs are a proven fishery management tool that have allowed us to end the race for fish, help rebuild fish stocks and maintain sustainable fisheries,” Denit said.
However, catch shares are not without controversy. Critics often argue that such programs lead to industry consolidation, placing small fishing operations at a disadvantage when vying for shares.
“Quota share programs are great for the people who hold the quota – it’s wonderful to be able to pick when and where to fish instead of having your fishing dictated by short, intense, crowded openings,” Behnken said. “However, the high cost of quota has made entry very difficult for coastal residents with little access to capital. We are working to address that, but it is difficult.”
The Duke economists nonetheless found positive impacts from catch shares programs across a wide range of US fisheries, adding fuel to a controversial debate over how best to sustainably manage marine fisheries.
“Although individual examples such as Alaskan halibut have suggested this outcome for many years, this is the first comprehensive study, and one of the first to use careful comparisons between those fisheries with and those without reform,” said co-author David Kaczan.
That overwhelming fishing pressure is a threat to marine fisheries worldwide is well established. From Alaska’s Dutch Harbor to General Santos Port in the South China Sea, fishermen compete with each other each year across the globe, often leading to overfishing, economic waste, and ecological upheaval.
One recent study utilizing data from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimated that a staggering 109 million metric tons of fish are caught each year worldwide – that’s over 12 million school buses or roughly 329 Empire State Buildings. Overfishing has pushed a number of popular target species to the brink of collapse in recent decades. For example, some reports estimate that Atlantic bluefin tuna have declined by as much as 51 percent.
“In some fisheries, traditional management has given rise to frenetic, dangerous, and costly derbies,” said Anna Birkenbach, lead author of the study. Indeed, words like “derby” and “race” are commonly used by scientists and fisheries researchers to refer to fishing seasons.
For example, in some management areas off the coast of Alaska, catch limits for Pacific halibut have been caught in under a week.
NOAA’s Kelly Denit echoed support for catch shares programs, noting that NOAA research also found “improvements in fishing safety” under catch share programs.
However, Denit explained that catch shares do come with potential drawbacks – not for the fish, but for those that catch them.
“Catch shares can result in consolidation of the harvesting sector because some fishermen holding shares choose to sell their privileges to someone else. While they are compensated for leaving the fishery, others, like fishing crews, are impacted by their decisions.”
One point of contention for many younger fishing operations is how allotments are determined for each applicant in catch share programs. Historical catch data is typically used to determine share allotments, which tends to leave less for newer operations that are just getting started, forcing them to either buy or lease shares from older operations with more capital. With a fishery that already has a low total allowable catch, this can be a major hurdle.
For example, a 2012 NOAA report found that the number of groundfishing vessels in the northeastern U.S. reduced from 601 to 450 following the initiation of catch shares programs in the New England area. Meanwhile, roughly 85 percent of earnings were consolidated to just 20 percent of fishing operations.
Behnken explained that, in Alaska, they’re working to address this consolidation by placing restrictions on who can purchase catch shares.
“The key aspect of our program is that, with limited exception, quota shares may only be purchased and fished by real people – corporations can’t purchase them, and leasing is not allowed,” she said. “Also, we have relatively low limits on how much can be owned by one person or fished from one boat to control consolidation.”
Ultimately, researchers agree that catch shares offer a solid policy alternative to reduce fishing pressures and help mitigate what many consider a destructive process.
“Catch share programs can play an essential role in meeting our national goal of rebuilding and sustaining fishery resources,” said Denit.
Yet catch shares remain a controversial issue in the policy sphere, and a foolproof alternative to managing marine fisheries has yet to surface. But if the world’s fish are to survive, perhaps we cannot let the perfect become the enemy of the good.
Birkenbach, A.B., Kaczan, D.J., & Smith, M.D. (2017). Catch Shares Slow the Race to Fish. Nature. DOI: 10.1038/nature21738
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