‘Catch shares’ catching on among fishing groups

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has released a national policy supporting the use of “catch shares” — a management approach that numerically divides up the allowable harvest of fish among commercial fishermen.

<em> Catch share quotas have been in place for halibut fishing in Alaska for more than a decade</em><br><small>NOAA photo</small>
Catch share quotas have been in place for halibut fishing in Alaska for more than a decade
NOAA photo

Instead of a race to catch the most fish in the shortest time, operators are allowed to choose when to fish, taking into account safety and market conditions. For harvest managers, the process provides greater control over the total annual catch.

Phil Anderson, director of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, told me his agency is generally supportive of this kind of management. The Pacific Fishery Management Council, which governs fisheries on the West Coast, will launch catch shares in 2011 for groundfish.

Of all the possible fisheries to choose from, the PFMC is working on what could be the most complicated one of all, Anderson said. (I’ll describe his other comments in a moment.)

Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke said this in a press release about the new policy:

“We have made great progress in rebuilding many fisheries, but more than 20 percent of our fish stocks have not been rebuilt, and even larger proportion of our fisheries are not meeting their full economic potential for the nation. Catch shares is a tool that can help us realize the full economic and biological benefits of rebuilt fisheries.”

NOAA estimates that rebuilding U.S. fish stocks would increase annual commercial values at the dock by an estimated $2.2 billion, a 54-percent increase over current dockside values of $4.1 billion.

Groundfish in our region, governed by the PFMC, are undergoing a management review leading up to individual fishing quotas. Groundfish include rockfish; flatfish, such as sole and flounder; roundfish, such as cod and Pacific whiting (hake); sharks and skates, including dogfish; and a group called “other.” For information, see the PFMC Web site.

One of the most controversial parts of the management review, known as “trawl rationalization,” includes allocating a percentage of the harvest to the various fishing sectors with some individual quotas reserved for shore-based systems. For more information, see the backgrounder on “Trawl Rationalization, Individual Fishing Quotas and Co-ops.”

Phil Anderson tells me that technology will play a major part in getting the new management system moving toward full-blown individual quotas. For the past eight years, catch shares have been generally allocated under a three-tier system for harvests of sablefish in the longline fishery. Such quotas, however, cannot be sold or transferred to others.

“If you are going to assign quota shares, you have to have a way to track those in real time,” Anderson said, noting that proposed electronic transfers during the fishing season would make the system more complex but more efficient.

One of the benefits of catch shares is to set limits for depleted stocks caught incidentally while fishing for more abundant stocks. Instead of throwing the “bycatch” back into the water, trawlers keep the fish and take note of what they caught. When they reach the bycatch limit, they may choose to stop fishing or else purchase additional shares from others.

With proper monitoring and enforcement, the system could make a significant difference in protecting depleted stocks.

Expanding catch shares requires a level of support from the industry, Anderson said. Even though the system has many business benefits, there is a degree of uncertainty, since owners must revamp their familiar business plans.

One example is the ocean crab fishery. It might make sense to establish quotas so that commercial crabbers can stay home in severe weather and take their shares when ocean conditions are more suitable. At the moment, however, the industry is focused on a government buy-back program and individual quotas could create turmoil.

As demonstrated by the new national policy, NOAA is pushing hard for regional fishery groups to adopt catch shares, but so far it is not an outright requirement.

Jim Balsiger, acting administrator of NOAA’s Fisheries Service:

“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.”

A story in the New York Times by reporters Allison Winter and Dina Fine Maron calls catch-shares programs “cap-and-trade management schemes for federal fisheries.”

Len Reed of The Oregonian touches on the subject from a regional viewpoint.

2 thoughts on “‘Catch shares’ catching on among fishing groups

  1. I have heard that bycatch reporting, being voluntary, is not that reliable. It appears that this effort does not do much to improve the accuracy of bycatch numbers. Is that correct?

  2. I would be happy to defer to anyone working on these regulations, but I understand that new program depends on official observers to count the fish caught.

    In the past, when bycatch was discarded, I suspect that the catch records were less reliable. If commercial trawlers are required to keep all fish caught, that might change what we know about the harvests.

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