Catch shares are one of the most talked about (and controversal) topics in the world of fisheries these days. Here in the Gulf of Mexico red snapper, grouper and tilefish fall under this unique management system. But what exactly are catch shares?Megan Westmeyer, the Coordinator for the South Carolina Aquarium's Sustainable Seafood Initiative recently wrote a very insightful and comprehensive article on catch shares in her quarterly newsletter "What's Cooking?" and I wanted to share it with you.
Catch Shares: Whose Fish are They?Fishery management, or regulation of wild fish harvest to ensure we have more fish for the future, is a complicated subject with which most people are unfamiliar. It is important for chefs to understand fishery management because it affects the price, availability and seasonality of seafood products. Fisheries, the wild populations of fish and shellfish that we harvest for food and recreation, are a common property resource. They are “owned” jointly by everyone – everyone has a right to use these resources. Unfortunately, if everyone used as much as they wanted, whenever they wanted, marine fish and shellfish populations would collapse and there would not be enough seafood left for others or future generations. This is often called the tragedy of the commons – when an individual’s personal interest conflicts common property resources for the public good – to provide seafood now and in future generations. In the U.S., fishery management occurs at the state and federal levels, as well as internationally for highly migratory fish like tuna and swordfish.
Fishery management regulations typically take the form of limits on who can fish, when and where they can fish, what kind of gear can be used, how many fish can be caught, and how large the fish must be in order to be kept. These regulations are designed to ensure that enough of each species remain in the ocean each year to reproduce and yield future generations, so that we can continue to harvest indefinitely. Regulations are also designed to protect the ocean habitats and other species that are not of commercial or recreational interest but are required for the health of seafood populations. Many of the regulations do limit or deny access to these common property resources, but they are necessary to protect the resources for future generations. Scientific research is needed for successful fishery management. Scientists must collect a great deal of data, including biological information on the fish, information on what species and how much the fishermen catch (this is called “fishery dependent” data), scientific survey data on fish populations in the wild (this is called “fishery independent” data) and social and demographic data on the business aspects of the fishery. Next, scientists create mathematical models that simulate the fishery based on all the data that have been collected, and the model is used to project what the population is likely to do in the future if fishing continues. Those projections are used to determine how many fish can be caught each year and if any other restraints on harvest are needed (like minimum size limits to ensure that fish are mature and have had a chance to reproduce before they are harvested).
In addition, scientists also consider if there are habitats that are critical for the health of the population that need to be protected. One of the most effective ways to regulate a fishery is development of an Annual Catch Limit, often abbreviated as ACL. This limits the number of fish or pounds of fish that can be harvested each year from a particular population. After the ACL is harvested, the fishery is closed until the next year. This ensures there will be enough fish left to reproduce and create future generations. ACLs can be difficult to enforce because there are multiple boats fishing at the same time, often out at sea for days or weeks, and harvest reports can be delayed. In addition, fishermen are competing against one another in a race to capture a portion of the commonly held ACL, which can lead to very fast paced fisheries that only last a few months (this has become the case in both the local vermilion snapper and golden tilefish fisheries). The government does try to track harvest levels in a timely manner, but overharvests do occur.
There is a type of fishery management regulation, called a Catch Share (or Individual Quota), which can reduce or eliminate this overharvest. Catch Shares are being implemented around the country and chefs and consumers may begin to hear more about this type of management. A Catch Share program is not a biological control on fishing (like an Annual Catch Limit); it is a method of allocating the Annual Catch Limit to specific fishermen. Instead of all fishermen competing against one another in a race to catch part of the commonly held ACL, often called derby fishing, each fisherman is allocated a specific percentage of the ACL. As the ACL changes, the actual poundage allocated to each fisherman will change accordingly. If the ACL goes up, each fisherman gets to catch more based on their percentage, or share, of the catch; if the ACL goes down, everyone has to catch less. Catch Shares are controversial because they allocate a public resource to private individuals. This allocation, by law, is not a “right” (something which cannot be taken away), but it does give individuals long-term, exclusive access to a common property resource. In some cases Catch Shares are treated as property rights, being bought and sold, used as collateral for loans, left to heirs, etc. This is an advantage for those who hold shares, but can make it difficult and expensive for new or young fishermen to get shares and enter a fishery. One of the most difficult aspects of implementing a new Catch Share system is determining how the initial allocations will be made. Typically allocations are based on catch histories – but during what time frame? In fisheries that are depleted, fishermen who were historically active may have chosen to avoid a specific fish for the last 10 years in order to help it recover, while some other fishermen continued to target it. However, if a new Catch Share system allocation only considers the last 10 years (as the current fishermen, who might have a greater say, would likely advocate), those fishermen who sacrificed to achieve conservation goals could be eliminated from the fishery.
Catch Shares can reduce overharvest by simplifying accountability in a fishery. Because each fisherman, or each boat, knows exactly how much they are allowed to catch each year, overharvests are less common and individuals can be held accountable if overages occur. There are other methods of preventing overharvest, such as real-time reporting of harvest, but they can be complicated and expensive (though the same can be said of implementing Catch Shares). Catch Shares can give fishermen a strong investment in the sustainability of the ocean because they are guaranteed a return – in other words, Catch Shares tie economic incentives to environmental protection. One of the other advantages touted by Catch Share proponents is that fish populations rebuild faster and are maintained at healthier sizes when fishermen are not racing to compete with each other. Fishermen reduce the amount of fish that are discarded by improving their fishing methods and reduce their impact on the ecosystem if they are able to use less gear and avoid sensitive habitat areas. Opponents of Catch Share systems claim that there are other methods of achieving all of these same results, without privatizing a fishery. In addition, fishermen in Catch Share systems may practice “high grading” – discarding of a less valuable item (because of size or quality) that has already been harvested, when a more valuable item of the same species is caught later in the fishing trip. Because they are no longer in a race to compete with others, they can take more time to seek out the highest value fish, crabs etc. and discard the less valuable ones before they return to shore and report their harvest.
Proponents also claim that Catch Shares result in full-time, stable, and higher-paying commercial fishing jobs. This can occur when the fishery is initially in a state of overcapacity – meaning that there are more fishermen in the industry than can be supported full-time by the allowed amount of harvest. Some fishermen are part-time fishers and have to supplement their income by working in other fisheries or other industries. When a Catch Share system is implemented, those part-time fishermen receive a small amount of quota and often end up selling their shares to other fishermen, naturally reducing the capacity in the fishery and allowing other fishermen to have more stable, possibly full-time employment, with higher earnings.
While this may create a full-time fishery that can regularly supply our communities with seafood, it also results in unemployment for some fishermen. In addition, “permit stacking” can consolidate the quota into even fewer hands, including absentee owners who merely employee captains and crews to fish their shares. Permit stacking occurs when, in advance of Catch Share system implementation, some fishermen or corporations buy multiple permits (which bring catch histories with them) to “stack” on one larger boat instead of multiple smaller boats with one permit each. This stacking greatly increases the allocation they will receive even though they did not actually catch all those fish. When shares become consolidated in this manner, some captains and crew lose their jobs because fewer boats are needed to harvest the annual catch. Catch Share systems can be implemented with caps on consolidation. But if fishermen or corporations have acquired multiple permits before the Catch Share is implemented they may already hold a large portion of the quota, resulting in a higher threshold. Proponents also tout the safety benefits of Catch Shares programs. Safety has been a problem under open access systems. Fishermen continue to fish in poor weather and forego sleep to a dangerous extent, because they are in a race against the clock and their peers. When each fisherman is allocated a quota there is less incentive to fish in hazardous conditions.
Another advantage of Catch Share systems is that fishermen can maximize the value of their catch by fishing whenever market prices are high. Under open access fisheries, where fishermen are competing with one another, large quantities of fish are often landed at the same time, overwhelming the market and lowering prices. A Catch Share system is likely to spread out the fishing season over many months, keeping prices high throughout. Of course, in fisheries that are competing with foreign imports, domestic supply and demand does not necessarily dictate the price and Catch Shares may not translate to any extra value. Even if Catch Shares do result in higher prices for fish, these gains can be offset by increased costs associated with obtaining shares if the initial allocation is inadequate. There is often high demand for shares and prices can be very high. This can put small owner-operated permit holders at a disadvantage if they do not have the cash, or are unwilling or unable to borrow money to buy shares. Share-holders may also lease their shares to other fishermen, instead of selling. But lease prices also can be high, and create a large additional expense. Fishermen who lease quota are not able to charge more for their fish than anyone else, so crew salaries are often reduced instead.
In 2010 Timothy Essington, at the University of Washington, conducted a comprehensive, objective evaluation of Catch Share systems in North America. His study tested the hypothesis that catch share programs lead to improved ecological stewardship and production capacity of the fishery. He examined changes in population size, fishing pressure, the type of gear used, discard rate, compliance with quotas and harvest amount. He found that the average levels of all of these factors were largely unresponsive to catch share management – population status, harvest amount, and fishing pressure did not change in a consistent manner when Catch Shares were implemented. Where he did find evidence of change was in the year to year variation in fishing pressure, compliance with quotas, harvest amount and discards.
In other words, Catch Shares did not necessarily improve the ecological sustainability of fisheries but did bring social and economic stability to those who remained in the fishery. Catch Shares have been proposed for the South Atlantic snapper and grouper fishery because the reduced quotas and constant opening and closing of seasons make it difficult for fishermen to make a steady living. In addition, there are more snapper grouper fishing permits available than can be supported at sustainable levels of fishing (overcapacity exists). A number of those permits are not actively fished – these are called latent permits – or not fished on a regular basis (the permit holder is not making a living catching and selling snapper and grouper). Unfortunately, in order to maintain a commercial fishery where professional fishermen are making a steady living some of these latent or irregularly used permits need to be retired. This has happened in many fisheries in the United States and around the world. In some cases, the government buys back the permits and retires them. Catch Shares are being promoted as a way of letting market forces reduce this overcapacity. But these latent or irregularly fished permits do have fishing history associated with them, thus if a Catch Share was implemented they would be allocated a percentage of the catch. Other active fishermen would then have to buy or lease these shares, increasing costs and reducing profits and wages. One of the major advantages of implementing a Catch Share system in the snapper grouper fishery would be the decreased likelihood of early fishing season closures when Annual Catch Limits are met. It is possible that there would be a more steady supply of local seafood, spread more evenly over the seasons. It is difficult to foresee all the future effects of a Catch Share system. Over two decades ago, a Catch Share system was implemented for the U.S. wreckfish fishery. But the program had an unanticipated result. The managers did not realize that many of the permit holders would stop fishing, instead holding the permits and effectively preventing anyone else from fishing. Now, the ACL for the wreckfish fishery has been drastically reduced because of new mathematical modeling techniques that call for a lower harvest than previously thought necessary. But because Catch Shares are allocated as percentages, the active fishermen will no longer receive enough quota to make a living. A new regulation has been proposed to revoke the shares held by inactive fishermen and award them to active fishermen, but there is no guarantee this regulation will be passed or become effective in time to preserve the livelihoods of the active fishermen.
There are numerous advantages and disadvantages to Catch Share systems. They are not a cure for everything that ails fisheries and can bring substantial drawbacks, but there can be substantial benefits as well. Fishery managers have known for a long time that we do not manage fish; we manage fishermen in a vital and dynamic system of food production. A Catch Share system must be designed very carefully, and only if supported by the fishermen who would be affected. Yet, we must acknowledge that we cannot predict every impact and there may be unforeseen complications, thus systems need to be designed with flexibility and modified if necessary.
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To view which fisheries in the United States are under catch share programs visit: