Catch shares – who to believe?

24 Mar 2013

With the onset of the 21st century, the US fisheries management administered by NOAA Fisheries has been promoting and implementing individual and tradable quotas (ITQ), which with time gained a new name – ‘catch shares’.

ITQs were not been invented in the USA, but in other countries, most prominently Iceland, Canada and Australia. Various governments have introduced a free market for ITQs, which carry socio-economic ramifications bordering on privatisation of the managed resources. Some called it “a massive give-away of public trust fisheries resources under the guise of conservation". In fact, freely transferable rights have been ending up in the hands of those, fishermen or not, that could afford to pay for such tradable rights.

Marketable fishing quotas have come in the wake of the neo-liberal trend in the world economics that measure economic success and efficiency in terms of profits (or rents) and preaches all-out privatisation. Marketable quota systems invariably lead to a gradual displacement of small-scale individual or family-owned fishing enterprises, and sooner or later to the concentration of fishing rights in the hands of a few, either specialised fishing companies, or large holding corporations.

Notwithstanding, where in heavily over-capitalised fisheries, run in the catch-as-catch-can ‘derby’ fashion, fishing was going on until the pre-set TAC was exhausted, sometimes with ridiculously short hour or even minute long spells, any other management system represented an improvement. Restaurants liked the catch shares, for their steady supply of fish compared with the former derby fishing that led to gluts of fresh fish followed by lean months and limited options for chefs. Also, according to Harvard Business Review, groundfish catch shares in New England, produced promising results, increasing groundfish landings by 6%, revenues by 18%, and reducing discards by 2/3, and when ocean warming caused hard times for fishermen, "in New England catch shares have kept a difficult situation from becoming even worse".

NOAA “progress”
The resigning NOAA chief, Dr Jane Lubchenko, in her message to NOAA employees describing her four year tenure, claimed that the"notable progress"achieved involved “ending over-fishing, rebuilding depleted stocks; returning fishing to profitability; reducing "pirate fishing"; better integrated conservation and restoration for coastal communities; improving efficiency of fisheries regulations; strengthening NOAA's fishery enforcement; and ensuring legal best practices”. All this, despite the fact that Acting Commerce Secretary Rebecca Blank had declared the Northeast ground fishery a certified “economic disaster” just two months earlier.

Dr Lubchenko’s claim was so far off the mark that it was described as made by someone “out of touch with what was happening to the New England fishery” by a well-known marine scientist, Professor Brian Rothschild of the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth, wondering whether it was "propaganda” or "delusion".

To claim "ensuring legal best practices", one has to ignore the law enforcement abuse of fishermen and business owners under Dr Lubchenko's administration, which were brought to light in 2010 by the US Commerce Department's inspector general, resulting in an apology from NOAA and $600,000 in reparations to the industry.

The catch share or sector-management system, promoted and implemented by Dr Lubchenko's NOAA replaced in 2010 the old system of regulating fisheries in New England. Two years later, both fishermen and regulators said that the catch share system is exacerbating the consolidation of the fishing fleet that shrunk from 1,200 groundfish boats in 2001, to under 450 in 2012.

Apparently, also John K. Bullard, who's been the Northeast Regional Administrator for NOAA Fisheries since the summer, after serving as president of Sea Education Association, mayor of New Bedford, Mass., and director of NOAA’s Office of Sustainable Development, hardly agrees with Dr Lubchenko's achievement claims. He told a recent fishing industry meeting on cod and other groundfish in the US Northeast waters heavily managed under catch shares system: "Many species are in serious trouble. Where cod is concerned, the recruits of baby fish remain very low…We have not had an above-average class for many years. There's lots of species not producing young. And I don't have an answer."

Fleet collapse
Elle Goethel, a marine biologist and fisherman's wife said that "catch shares implemented without safeguards lead to the collapse of the small-boat fleet. That is because the catch share system allows for the sale or lease of quotas, which often end up in the hands of the highest bidders such as multinational companies". While originally in New England this system had some of those safeguards, they were voted out by council members with "vested interest". Maine fisherman Glenn Robbins simply said: "The big boats are taking over and they're killing the little guys off".

On the Pacific coast catch shares apparently produced some winners. A fishing friend wrote to me that in the trawl fishery the system works reasonably well, except there is no restriction on who can own a trawl permit with associated catch shares. The Nature Conservancy NGO bought out multiple trawl permits and put some of them on smaller longline vessels, and anybody, even a Kansas City car dealer could buy one. "Think about it,” – wrote my West Coast friend – “an individual fisherman can't compete with a non-profit corporation that raises millions of dollars annually. And, processors can own permits as well".

According to a recent editorial in the Gloucester Daily Times, "the inshore fishery is being killed off by the federal government’s catastrophically flawed catch share management system, which, is allowing the selling and leasing of fishermen’s “catch shares”.... "Of all the problems with catch shares, perhaps its "greatest sham" is the widespread killing of fishermen’s jobs and driving of all quota into the hands of fewer and fewer well-capitalised big boats, and it’s driving of more and more small, independent boats off the waters".

It seems that some people think that they can run failed management by "more-of-the-same" basis. If still failing, there's always the economic disaster assistance. Wouldn't it be more reasonable, to end catch shares wherever they do wrong, before it’s too late? And perhaps some European ITQ-enthusiasts should fly over to New England for a chat with local fishermen?

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