Magazine article Policy Brief Series (Hamilton Project)

Tomorrow's Catch: A Proposal to Strengthen the Economic Sustainability of U.S. Fisheries

Magazine article Policy Brief Series (Hamilton Project)

Tomorrow's Catch: A Proposal to Strengthen the Economic Sustainability of U.S. Fisheries

Article excerpt

Wild fisheries in U.S. waters make an important contribution to the nation's economy, our coastal heritage, and to consumers. But their economic sustainability is not guaranteed and current practices do not capitalize on their full economic potential. Fortunately, in contrast to many contemporary environmental challenges, economic and environmental objectives in fisheries can, in principle, go hand in hand. Effective stewardship of wild fisheries can leverage their renewable nature and lead to both a more prosperous U.S. fishing industry and a healthier marine ecosystem.

Although federal U.S. policy has long recognized the economic and recreational value of fisheries, management practices in the United States and in much of the world remain focused on heavyhanded, top-down command-and-control approaches that implicitly prioritize short-run inefficient exploitation of fisheries over their long-term sustainability. These outdated management approaches can encourage short, highly competitive fishing seasons known as the race to fish, an economically wasteful situation in which each licensed fisherman overinvests in fishing technology, gear, crew, and other inputs to maximize his take of fish, given the prescribed season length. These accelerated seasons often lead to stock depletion and economic waste, threatening the prosperity of fisheries, fishing communities, and marine ecosystems.

Wild fisheries play a particularly significant role in many local economies. In 2011, almost 10 billion pounds of fish were caught and brought to U.S. shores, supporting 1.3 million jobs and generating revenue of about $5 billion. The economic impact of fisheries goes far beyond this initial harvest, however, with notable activity in the processing and distribution of fish, retail sales, and recreational fishing.

Advances in fishery management in the United States over the past two decades have led to improved economic efficiency and sustainability, but more remains to be done. Rebuilding our nation's fish stocks can increase sales by billions of dollars and lead to hundreds of thousands of new jobs for American workers. In addition, improved management would lower public disaster payments to fisheries, reduce fishermen fatalities, and raise the quality of fish for American consumers.

In a new Hamilton Project discussion paper, Christopher Costello of the University of California, Santa Barbara proposes an amendment to the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA), the federal law guiding the management of U.S. fisheries. This proposal would require that fisheries meeting certain criteria undertake a transparent comparison of the economic, social, and ecological trade-offs between status quo management and alternative management structures-in particular, property-rights structures that fall into the broad class referred to as catch shares. Costello expects that this comparison will lead many fisheries to adopt a catch share management approach.

Catch shares are a customizable family of fishery management policies that assign fishing rights to various entities, including fishermen, cooperatives, and communities. Costello asserts that catch shares will give fishing communities a greater stake in the sustainability of fisheries, thereby preventing their depletion and building long-term economic prosperity. Drawing on a growing body of empirical evidence, Costello observes that catch shares eliminate the economically wasteful race to fish that threatens other fishery management approaches. By dramatically lengthening the fishing season, catch shares can lead to gains in long-term employment, significant improvements in safety for fishermen, and improved availability of fresh fish for consumers. Finally, by allowing fishermen to trade their catch share rights among themselves, this property-rights approach would encourage the most efficient fishermen to participate in the market, leading to lower costs and higher profits for fishing communities. …

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