A recent blog at Mother Jones asks the question, “Can a fish-sharing program save the oceans?” Since the program in question is catch shares, the answer is, “No.” You’re probably asking the next obvious question: why? Catch shares really do look artificially positive until you look at the whole picture.
Catch shares programs privatize our nation’s fisheries, divvying out the privilege of catching fish to a limited number of individuals, and letting them trade, sell, and lease these rights in unregulated, closed markets. In the process, hundreds to thousands of smaller-scale fishermen are cut out of the industry entirely.
What we end up with is a sharecropper system, which was well-described in a Seattle Weekly feature on one of the halibut and sablefish catch shares programs in the North Pacific. This catch shares program, which has been in place since 1995, has devolved into a system where boat captains compete against each other to offer the latest in at-sea entertainment and luxury to the wealthy owners of those catch shares, just so they can get some fraction of the profits for themselves and their crew. Many of those catch shares owners have never baited a hook in their lives.
Catch shares are thus essentially an economic management system rather than an environmental one, but the claims made about how catch shares can also ensure sustainability are exaggerated and poorly supported.
All catch share programs operate under a catch limit, which sets the maximum number of fish of that species or species group that can be caught in a fishing year. This is really the only sustainability measure inherent in a catch shares program, and these limits can and have been set independently of catch shares management in numerous fisheries.
In fact, one of the co-authors of the 2008 study published in Science that the Mother Jones blog cites as finding catch shares as “highly effective” in recovering fishery sustainability has cautioned against interpreting their results that way, as the study was not sufficient to establish a cause and effect relationship between catch shares and fishery health. This was, in part, due to a failure to distinguish between the influence of setting catch limits and implementing catch shares.
Once we distinguish between catch limits and catch shares, the only essential conservation idea behind catch shares is “kick a bunch of fishermen out and let the remaining, wealthy few handle the sustainability for us.” Implementing catch shares typically removes other measures to protect vulnerable spawning areas and other critical fish populations, and their rigidity fails to respond to both natural and dramatic stock fluctuations. And catch shares have been shown to increase bycatch and discard issues in fisheries.
A study out just this week in PNAS confirms what we’ve intuitively known for a long time – saving the fish is going to be a lot more complicated than just not catching some of them. Climate change, ocean acidification, pollution, expanding human competition for ocean resources, and natural changes in oceanic states are all going to increase the pressure on our fisheries. And the government’s plan to abdicate responsibility for creating sustainable fisheries by ceding all their authority to closed, shadowy private markets is possibly the worst possible situation we could be in to tackle those enormous problems.