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Published in Fly Fishing in Salt Waters, Oct/Nov 2010 Issue



If property constructed, catch shares can benefit both commercial and recreational fisheries


Back in the spring of 2008, I wrote in this column that “catch shares” (a general term for management strategies that set an annual catch limit for a stock and allocate a specific portion of that catch to entities, such as commercial fishermen, cooperatives or communities) could be a valuable tool to remedy the Tragedy of the Commons US fisheries have suffered from.  I still believe this.  


Catch share systems essentially give ownership of a portion of the harvest to commercial fishers.    It allows them to be selective about how and when they catch their allotment.  Few would argue that when designed correctly, such programs eliminate the race to fish, reduce overcapacity and bycatch, and improve economic efficiency.  More importantly, because share owners have a vested interest in the fishery, they want the population to grow because as the fishery grows, shares will become more valuable.  Hence, they indirectly produce a conservation ethic.  Coupled with sound conservation measures, catch shares can be an effective tool for the right-sizing of commercial fleets and the rationalization of commercial fishery economics. 


Catch shares are not a new concept.  Other countries have been very successful in implementing catch shares in their fisheries, while 14 fisheries are currently managed through catch shares in the U.S.  Recently, NOAA has begun touting catch shares with renewed emphasis, because the current management approach in a number of U.S. fisheries has been unable to control overall catch (i.e., overfishing), while encouraging a race to catch as much fish as possible.  The result has been overcapitalization, lower profits and, poor product quality, with no incentive to reduce bycatch.  NOAA and others believe that catch shares may be a viable solution to those problems in some fisheries. 


I share NOAA’s enthusiasm for such ownership systems.  Scientific analyses show that fisheries so managed have demonstrated improved biological and economic performance relative to prior management using traditional tools.  Yet, while catch shares in commercial-only fisheries can turn fisheries around, in those with a recreational component (mixed use) there are serious concerns.  The most glaring is allocation. 


Most recreational fishing interests believe that the implementation of catch shares in mixed use fisheries has the potential to lock-in unfair commercial allocation levels, many of which are based on outdated assessments and most of which refuse to recognize the socio-economic contribution of the recreational fishing public.  


Essentially, a catch-share system grants those who seek to profit from a public resource a property-right.   Whether or not legally justifiable, the award and, eventually, the purchase of a defined portion of the harvest will impart a view that the fisher "owns" the fish represented by his or her share, and will fight to protect his "property".   NOAA’s Draft Catch Share Policy states that “Councils should periodically revisit sector allocations based on consideration of conservation issues, economic and social values,” yet given the historical reluctance of Councils to broach the issue of allocation and the additional fact that commercial entities paid for their share, managers will be even more unlikely to consider moving fish out of the commercial allocation.  That could be a big problem as the fishing public continues to grow.  The more recreational fishers who enter the fishery, the fewer fish will be available to the average Joe. 


Furthermore, some believe there will be an inevitable consolidation of ownership, despite the “excessive share provisions” in NOAA’s Draft Catch Share Policy.  Such consolidation would concentrate the wealth from the fishery in a handful of commercial share owners, who will represent an increasingly powerful commercial fishing lobby, which would fight ever harder to maintain or even increase allocation at the expense of recreational anglers.   As the squabbling multitudes of commercial fishers are replaced by a smaller number of well-heeled fishers more sophisticated in the ways of management and politics, allocation changes could  become ever more difficult, and the stocks themselves could suffer as such a lobby may be able to successfully push for bigger catch limits despite the science.


Another concern is the issue of shares for the party/charter-boat fleet.  If such “for-hire” shares are carved out of the recreational allocation, as would be likely, once the commercial shares are doled out, the growing recreational fishing public could very possibly be left with a paltry piece of the total pie.  This could conceivably result in a situation, particularly in cases where a stock appears to be declining, where recreational fishers are constrained not only by restrictive size and bag limits, but by a complete closure of their fishery, forcing them to pay the fare on a party/charter boat just to access what should be a public resource. 


The fact that commercial catch shares are very easy to manage also causes concern with respect to mixed-use fisheries.  Commercial catches are accounted for and share owners stop fishing when their quota has been caught.  The recreational sector is not so easily managed.  Effort and catch are very hard to pin-down in recreational fisheries as it is simply not possible to account for every fish caught.  There is a big time-lag in catch estimates, which depend on an imprecise sampling system.  Thus, overages on the recreational side are frequent.  Such difficulties in managing recreational catch only serve to reinforce allocations that favor the easily-managed commercial sector.  That makes any argument to shift a portion the resource over to a growing recreational sector even more difficult to sell.


Anglers’ fears are not without justification.  Recent red snapper and gulf grouper catch share programs are proving to be very problematic for the recreational sector.  In both cases the majority of the public snapper and grouper resources were given to a small, select group of commercial fishermen to harvest for their own personal gain, without any supporting economic impact analysis or justification, which should be required for what is construed by some as a permanent allocation.  What is particularly annoying is that these commercial entities paid nothing for what amounts to a permanent property right.  In other words, it’s another subsidy. 


In the Pacific Northwest, a catch share program for halibut appears to be squeezing anglers out of the fishery as increased pressure is leading to increasing restrictions, rather than a reallocation, based on economic benefit, that would increase the recreational share.


All this said, I’m still a firm believer in the utility of catch share systems, and the typical knee-jerk reaction of some in the angling community that all catch-share systems are bad is just not justified. 


While the history of catch-share programs in mixed-use fisheries has been discouraging, they can work if properly structured.  Virtually all programs that have been constructed thus far have set a commercial allocation and then limited one of the very provisions that make catch-share programs so effective.  That’s the ability for anyone to buy shares of a fishery.  In just about all cases thus far, the recreational fishery and the public were intentionally excluded.  “Such programs are the kiss of death to any attempt to increase recreational allocation or achieve gamefish status for selected species” notes CCA’s Dick Brame, “as once commercials receive shares they essentially have a property right and there’s no way to get them back.”


Catch share systems by design should really be open to any buyer in a free market.  The allowable harvest should be initially allocated between the commercial and recreation sectors, with the commercial allocation placed under a limited access program.  In a fishery that is particularly valuable to the recreational sector, the system would then allow them to buy quota shares at fair market value and either harvest them or retire them for conservation purposes.  This would benefit both sectors and would be a fair way to change historic allocations. 


Catch share systems are put in place using a “snapshot” of the economic contribution and catch history of a fishery. NOAA Fisheries and regional councils need to ensure that this snapshot is up-to-date and equitable prior to moving forward with a catch share program, and ensure that it includes socioeconomic information on recreational fisheries.  So far this hasn’t been done.   The Councils should be required to examine the existing allocation to determine if it is consistent with the best use of the resource for the nation as a whole.  If it is not, the allocation should be realigned.


Since January, NOAA Fisheries has been accepting public comment on their Draft Catch Share Policy.  At the time of this writing, we’re expecting it to be released any day now.  I’m hoping that it will include the stipulations listed above. 


The bottom line is this.  Catch shares work.  But even the strongest supporters of catch shares agree that the failure of the allocation process to remain dynamic, allowing some allocations to remain frozen in time for decades, has become a legitimate issue that should be addressed since it has become an impediment to broader private angler support for catch shares, which very well may be the answer to many fishery related problems.