Learning How to Fish: Catch Shares and the Future of Fishery Conservation

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I.   INTRODUCTION II.  THE TRAGEDY OF THE OCEAN COMMONS III. THE FAILURE OF FISHERY REGULATION IV.  PROPERTY RIGHTS--THE ROAD NOT TAKEN V.   CATCH SHARES IN PRACTICE    A. Economic Consequences of Catch Shares    B. Catch Shares and Conservation    C. Social and Economic Consequences of Catch Shares VI.  THE IMPORTANCE OF PROPERTY RIGHTS VII. CONCLUSION 

I. Introduction

In a crowded meeting hall in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, the New England Fishery Management Council voted this January to recommend drastic new cuts to the catch limits for Atlantic codfish off the New England coast. (1) Over the strenuous objections of local communities and fishermen, the Council proposed 77% reductions in the allowable cod harvest for each of the next three years in the Gulf of Maine, and a 61% cut in next year's cod catch on Georges Bank. (2) The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration approved the proposed catch limits and other "emergency" measures in May 2013. (3)

New England fishermen and other opponents of the plan fear that these restrictions will doom the centuries-old local fishing industry. As one lamented- "Right now what we've got is a plan that guarantees the fishermen's extinction and does nothing to ameliorate it." (4) Proponents of the plan, however, counter that these measures are the only way to save the rapidly collapsing Atlantic cod industry. As Council member John Bullard, regional administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, observed, the problem is that there are fewer and fewer codfish in the sea. "It's midnight and getting darker when it comes to how many cod there are. There isn't enough cod for people to make a decent living." (5) The dire state of the fishery gave Council members little choice. (6)

Unfortunately, even these severe new limits may not be enough to save the New England cod fishery. The Council's most recent steps follow on years of mismanagement, overly optimistic stock estimates, and misguided fishery policies that failed to align the economic interests of the fishing community with the long-term sustainability of the fishery. Reforms adopted for the 2010 season may have been too little too late. (7) As fishery researcher Ray Hilborn has explained, the incentives and policies governing the New England groundfish fishery for many years have made the fishery vulnerable to just this kind of collapse. (8) In the 1990s, for example, the fishery stock assessments indicated that short-term catch limits and fishing effort reductions could rebuild the fishery stock and ultimately lead to higher long-term yields. Nevertheless, local fishermen and their political representatives vehemently opposed any such reductions. (9)

It would be easy to attack New England fishermen for being short-sighted. To do so, however, would ignore the incentives they face--incentives created by the existing regulatory structure. Due to a large number of inactive trawling permits, incumbent fishermen have little incentive to agree to catch reductions, as they would be unlikely to capture the full value of the rebuilt stocks. (10) Even if catch reductions today would lead to higher catch limits in the future, a rebuilt stock could encourage inactive trawlers to resume fishing. (11) And although a variety of forces--some beyond human control--likely contributed to the fishery's present crisis, without proper incentives for the fishing community to preserve New England's stocks, overfishing and mismanagement continued, leaving one of North America's oldest fisheries increasingly vulnerable to collapse.

The hard choices being made in an effort to save the Atlantic cod fishery today are all too common, as policymakers continue to employ and rely upon failed conservation policies, leaving fisheries the world over poorly managed and under stress. (12) By some measures, a majority of exploited fisheries are depleted or in decline. (13) Even more troubling, new research suggests that those fisheries about which scientists know the least may be in the worst shape. …