Catch Shares: Fishery Management Controversy

By FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff

POINT JUDITH — No fisherman wants to catch the last cod, haddock or flounder in New England waters, but developing fishery management plans that would prevent such a scenario and keep fishermen employed has been contentiously debated by commercial and recreational fishermen, scientists, academics and government officials for generations.

Since 1977, 15 major changes and 44 lesser modifications have been made to U.S. fisheries in hopes of preventing overfishing without forcing too many fishermen out of business. All of these changes, especially the major ones, have failed to placate all the different interests.

Major change No. 16 has proven to be no different, and in less than three weeks, the rules governing the New England and eastern seaboard groundfish fishery will change — again. This time, it is independent and family-owned commercial fishing operations that are voicing the most resistance.

Many fishermen in Rhode Island’s groundfish fleet are leery of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) catch-shares program that will go into effect May 1. This approach, they fear, will be driven by a misguided faith in privatization, which they say will turn a public resource into just another interest controlled by Wall Street and big corporations.

“Catch shares are just another name for privatization,” said Charlestown resident Tina Jackson, who began fishing out of Point Judith on the trawler Slacker five years ago. “They don’t help improve the health of fish stocks. They’re not a conservation tool; they’re an economic tool.”

A catch-share program differs from traditional management systems by dividing up the total allowable catch in a fishery into shares. These shares are typically allocated based on historical participation in the fishery, according to NOAA, and may be assigned to individuals, cooperatives, communities or other entities, who would be allowed to fish up to their assigned limit. Catch-share participants also agree to stop fishing when they have caught as much as they are allowed.

For the past year, NOAA has conducted a multimillion-dollar effort to ready the industry for these changes, which, for most fishermen, are an entirely new way of doing business — from a days-at-sea management program to a sector management/catch-share program.

Most fishermen invested substantial amounts of money buying extra days at sea and based significant business decisions on that model, according to the Wakefield-based American Alliance of Fishermen and their Communities (AAFC). To transition into catch shares, which are based instead on catch history, nullifies these investments and puts fishermen in a position of financial uncertainty, members said.

Others say putting faith in private ownership to promote stewardship and self-regulation will not solve the program’s monitoring and enforcement challenges.

Nearly $50 million has been committed to get this new management system underway and to support the industry for the first year. This includes grants to sectors to cover planning and organizational costs, training support, covering monitoring costs both dock-side and at sea, developing new technologies to ease monitoring and reporting tasks, and cooperative research to improve gear and fishing methods so that more of the available catch can be landed.

The current groundfish management system, which has its share of critics, tries to prevent overfishing in part by restricting the time fishermen are allowed to spend at sea. It’s a flawed system that creates a lot of waste, as discarded by-catch counts often are higher than the amount of targeted fish actually caught, according to longtime New England fisherman Richard Allen.

The Westerly resident began fishing in 1964, and began a parallel career in fishery consulting eight years later. Allen, who retired from on-the-water work in 2000, continues to represent the fishing industry on a variety of public policy issues.

Allen works as a paid consultant with the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), which, like him, believes NOAA’s catch-shares program is the best fishery management tool available.

He didn’t always believe catch shares were the best option, however. Beginning in 1972, Allen was determined to prove the idea was an ineffective form of fishery management. He continued to believe that until the mid-1980s, when his research on catch shares ultimately proved his assumption wrong.

“It’s a flexible system,” said Allen, who has been preaching the benefits of a catch-share program in New England since the late ’80s. “You don’t have to limit permits, you can mix and match species and it doesn’t require fishermen to throw fish back. If you go over your quota on a specific species, you’ll have something like 30 days to buy someone else’s quota, instead of throwing dead or dying fish overboard.”

Catch-share systems, which include limited access privilege programs and individual fishing quotas, have been used in the United States since 1990 and now are used in 13 different U.S. commercial fisheries, according to NOAA.

The catch-share approach also is used in New Zealand, Australia, Iceland and Canada.

“Catch shares allow fishermen to plan their businesses better and be more selective about when and how they catch their allotment, because they know their share of the fishery is secure,” said Jim Balsiger, acting administrator of NOAA’s Fisheries Service. “They can plan their fishing schedules in response to weather, market and individual business conditions. Catch-share programs help eliminate the race to fish, reduce overcapacity and by-catch … and improve economic efficiency. They also help ensure fishermen adhere to annual catch limits because the value of their share is directly linked to the overall health of the fish stock.”

However, a report released this month by the Food & Water Watch, a Washington, D.C.-based non-governmental organization and consumer rights group that focuses on corporate and government accountability relating to food, water and fishing, claims the privatization of Iceland’s fisheries in the 1980s and 1990s through a catch-share program provided a get-rich-quick outlet for a select few, while it marginalized existing small-scale fishermen and left out future fishermen and the public entirely.

NOAA, though, has estimated that rebuilding U.S. fish stocks through the catch-share program will increase annual commercial dockside values by an estimated $2.2 billion, a 54 percent increase over current dockside values of $4.1 billion, and help support jobs in the seafood industry and across the broader economy.

Some Rhode Island fishermen, however, aren’t buying NOAA’s estimations and its science when it comes to lofty catch-share predictions. In fact, Jackson and two other local fishermen left Sunday for Washington, D.C., to join others concerned about the impending May 1 changeover.

Jackson, president of the AAFC, is scheduled to testify Wednesday morning in front of a congressional committee. During their stay in the nation’s capital, members of the organization also are expected to meet with various business groups and lawmakers about what they say is a flawed fishery management system. The AAFC is hoping to at least get a two-year moratorium on the implementation of the catch-share program.

“There’s this public perception that fishermen are destroying the bottom of the ocean and killing everything out here,” Jackson said.

The special interests that will benefit from this soon-to-be-enacted catch-shares system will end up doing just that, according to local fishermen who are against the idea. They fear conflicts of interest, nepotism and special interest money, which they believe were behind the creation of the latest catch-share program, will collapse New England’s 19-species groundfish fishery.

They accuse NOAA, EDF and the National Marine Fisheries Service of using this catch-share program to win favors and funding from industries and companies with bulging bank accounts, such as Big Oil and Wal-Mart, and to induce investors into the fishery.

They note that EDF is the lead advocate for the catch-share policy that is a top priority of Jane Lubchenco, the administrator of NOAA and Undersecretary of Commerce. She resigned as the organization’s vice chairwoman to join the Obama administration.

“They’re all friends and buddies pushing these ideas on the industry,” said Long Island native Meghan Lapp, who hopes to be fishing out of Point Judith next month. “The EDF promotes itself as an environmental group, so the public thinks they are trying to conserve fish stocks. That’s not true; they’re trying to privatize the fishing industry, which means (independent owner-operator fishermen) are ready to be homeless in a few months.”

The implementation of a catch-share system and its conservatively low catch limits will result in fleet consolidation, as a number of vessels will be unable to make a successful transition under this new management program, according to some industry experts.

The AAFC predicts New England will lose 50 percent to 70 percent of its groundfishing fleet. “NOAA wants to privatize the industry and take people off the water because they can’t manage them,” Jackson said.

Bill “Buck” Briggs, who has been fishing out of Rhode Island for 36 years, said factory ships and big trawlers will move in to fill that fishing void. “They want us out of business,” said Briggs, the owner-operator of the trawler Jackson works on. “Big corporations make money. It’s a billion-dollar industry and they want it.”

Allen dismissed that theory as baseless. He noted that the collapse of fish stocks is much less common in areas where catch-share fishing is practiced, because the system guarantees each fisherman a specified share of the catch.

“I was a small-scale fisherman for most of my working life,” said Allen, who retired from fishing 10 years ago after having quadruple bypass surgery. “My experience and my research tell me that catch shares are the best available fishery management system for the fish and for fishermen. I have talked to numerous fishermen who say that catch shares saved their fishery from ruin.”

As for other fishery management options, Allen doesn’t believe using auctions as a means of allocating fishing rights works and he is against limiting permits, which he said doesn’t limit the catch — the essential element in fishery conservation.

The New England fisheries have gone from one crisis to another — foreign fleets depleting fish stocks, oil companies drilling test wells on Georges Bank and lobstermen and draggers battling over the offshore fishing grounds — for hundreds of years, he said.

“The chronic controversy surrounding fishery management in New England has only grown worse since the Magnuson Fishery Conservation and Management Act (originally enacted in 1977 and since amended) first brought regulations to the fisheries beyond three miles from the coast,” Allen said. “I’m one of the people who has not been happy with most of the regulations, because they have destroyed the ability of fishermen to run good businesses in a sensible way. But I do believe that catch shares offer a way to get out of the self-destructive mess that the New England fishing industry has been in since Marblehead’s Elbridge Gerry brought home the first subsidies for the New England fleet.”