Teach an Industry How to Fish and Maybe It Will Survive

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Illustration by Bloomberg View

Most of the news about the world’s oceans is a litany of gloom: rising water temperatures, acidification, bleached coral reefs, tons of Japanese tsunami trash drifting toward North America’s west coast. So it is worth noting when something good is happening with the seas.

Last month, the U.S. government reported that six types of fish, including Maine haddock, summer flounder in the mid- Atlantic and Chinook salmon in northern California, had fully recovered in the past year from decades of overfishing. It was the largest number in a single year. Much of the credit goes to a program overseen by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that limits how many fish can be taken annually.

To date, 27 stocks of fish have been restored since 2000. This suggests that, at least along U.S. shores, there are responsible ways to harvest fish and ensure a reliable source of food.

That is good because many U.S. fisheries remain shaky. Out of 537 fisheries the government tracks, reliable data is available for less than half. Of those that are monitored, 21 percent are subject to destructive fishing practices. Sustainable catch rates for the rest are up in the air, though NOAA is required by law to gather the missing data and set annual quotas by year-end.

Reduced Harvests

The fish have help. The same can’t always be said of those who catch them. Quotas mean the industry must live with reduced harvests as populations rebuild. But quotas also tend to force boat operators to haul in as many fish as possible before someone else gets them.

Eight regional fisheries management councils, made up of fleet operators, scientists and government officials, are charged with managing the quotas. They have tried various strategies such as seasonal closings and limits on fishing permits. They often don’t work. The best alternative is a program known as catch share, which allocates guaranteed fishing rights, usually based on how much each boat or fleet caught in the past.

These shares can be used to fish, or be sold or leased to other boat operators -- a sort of cap-and-trade for fish. In most areas where catch-share programs have been adopted since 2010, fleets no longer need to harvest as many fish in the shortest time possible.

Putting catch share in place hasn’t been easy everywhere. Opponents deny that fishing stocks are in trouble, or they simply object to government interference with anyone’s divine right to fish.

More troublesome is resistance in New England, where shares were assigned to sectors, or collectives of fishermen. The Massachusetts cities of Gloucester and New Bedford have sued to block the program, saying the regional council bypassed a federal requirement that stakeholders vote on how each region manages its quotas. Small-boat operators say the sector allocation has made it uneconomical for them to survive, leading to industry concentration.

Some consolidation was inevitable: Too many people have chased too few fish for too long. But if catch-share proponents want the program to survive legal attacks, fishing rights need to be awarded equitably.

The New England experience also points to a flaw in how NOAA evaluates the success of its policies by looking only at the effects on fisheries. The agency should also assess the economic impact on communities after catch-share programs are adopted.

The House of Representatives last month voted to cut off funding to expand catch-share programs off the East Coast and in the Gulf of Mexico. Although the Senate should reject this, NOAA needs to work harder to gain maximum acceptance of catch share. It can do that by ensuring that those with the most at stake -- people who fish for a living -- have a say in how the programs are designed and carried out.

Catch share isn’t perfect, and it doesn’t promise that fishing stocks can be restored. But it is better than anything else fisheries managers have tried, and it can increase the odds that we don’t end up with oceans stripped of fish.

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