Catch Share: Fisheries Management Policy Controversy Heats Up

February 17, 2010

Until now, US fisheries have operated mainly on a catch-it-while-you-can basis. In recent years, overall quotas for several key fisheries have been met in mere hours or days after the opening of the season — boats rush out all at once to catch as much as they can before the season's quota gets met and the fishery is closed. This not only increases business risk and the unpredictability of employment in the fishing industry: the rush approach to meeting fishery quotas often also leads to overfishing.

In December, NOAA proposed wider implementation of the "catch share" approach, which manages fisheries by applying quotas to individual fishing operations, rather than across an entire fishery.

A Feb 5 Gloucester (MA) Times article by Richard Gaines explained that the policy would "regulate fishermen's work based on hard catch allocation figures, rather than by limiting their days at sea." The story also contended that budgeting for catch share appears to be overlooking the need for research in order to fund faster implementation.

Here's how Jim Balsiger, acting administrator of NOAA's Fisheries Service, portrays the policy's potential benefits: "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. 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 bycatch, enhance the safety of fishermen and their vessels, 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 and its habitat."

In a Feb. 12 Santa Barbara (CA) Independent commentary, Holly Pearson of the Food and Water Watch Fair Fish campaign contended that catch share is "a potentially great idea if developed and implemented carefully, a troubling program if used to privatize access to fish... in its current state, the plan, which includes ground fish off California, is severely flawed. It is not the traditional fisherman who are receiving these shares, but rather multinational fisheries corporations such as Packard, Sea World, and Wal-Mart, who view fish as just another dollar sign. The size and distribution of shares is based on catch history, or the amount that the entity caught in the past. Simply put, those who caught the most the previous year receive the catch shares for the next year, thus rewarding those who fish the hardest and the fastest, emptying our oceans thoughtlessly, one year at a time."


Many US fishing operations strongly oppose catch share and other proposed and current US fishing regulations, and are organizing to defeat the policies.

The United We Fish campaign (an alliance of recreational and commercial fishing interests) is planning a Feb. 24 rally at the Capitol in Washington, DC to protest catch share, marine spatial planning, and the Magnuson-Stevens Act (the federal fisheries law reauthorized in 2007).


The catch share controversy occurs in a broader context of acrimony between NOAA and the fishing industry. On Jan 21 the US Dept. of Commerce Office of Inspector General published a report on NOAA's enforcement of fisheries regulations, which found "systemic, nationwide issues adversely affecting NOAA's ability to effectively carry out its mission of regulating the fishing industry."

The IG continued: "These issues have contributed significantly to a highly-charged regulatory climate and dysfunctional relationship between NOAA and the fishing industry -- particularly in the Northeast Region. If not addressed by NOAA's senior leadership, these issues have the potential to further strain the tenuous relationship that exists in the Northeast Region, and to become problematic in NOAA's other regions. We note that the NMFS Assistant Administrator position is presently occupied by an acting official, and that the new NOAA General Counsel appointee was just announced. These key leadership positions are critical to NOAA's ability to effectively oversee its enforcement program."

Thumbnail image courtesy NOAA/William B. Folsom, NMFS.

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