The science of sustainable seafood, explained

A Management Perspective on Catch Shares

Ben Raines of AL.com – Alabama Local News – discussed Catch shares in the Gulf of Mexico red snapper fishery last week in an article titled, How a ‘rogue’ environmental group transformed American fisheries

The [Environmental Defense Fund] has pushed a system that turns the right to catch a pound of fish into a private commodity that can be bought and sold like a share of stock on Wall Street. The government then gives these shares to individual commercial fishermen, granting them the right to catch that fish, or lease or sell the right to catch it to another fisherman.

 This article specifically pertained to implementing catch shares in the recreational red snapper fishery in the Gulf of Mexico, a policy Raines and many commercial and recreational fishermen opposed. Catch shares for the Gulf of Mexico red snapper fishery were put in place in 2007.

Catch shares lead to a consolidation of ownership, Raines explained, such that there is no sharing at all, and many small scale fishermen are left with an unprofitable share of the quota. The result are “Sea Lords”, a term for those few quota owners that have the greatest pieces of the quota pie and can lease their quota to other fishermen to catch fish for them. Taking the owners of the quota off the actual fishing boats is a critical part of Raines’ argument against catch share programs.

Comment by Bruce Turris, President of Pacific Fisheries Management Inc.

The article’s author isn’t trying to provide a balanced perspective.  Indeed his wording is clearly designed to make EDF and catch shares look evil.  Most notably, the author doesn’t talk about why the fisheries adopted catch shares, the prior state of the fisheries (in terms of sustainability, exceeding TACs, discarding, misreporting, unreported catch, illegal fishing, excess harvesting capacity, season length, number of person years of employment, safety, product quality, meeting market needs, and industry’s financial profile) and where the fishery would be if it had stayed on the path it was on.  By ignoring all this information, he is able to completely ignore having to suggest a better way to manage the fishery.  Rather, he cherry picks specific issues (employment, income distribution) and, without any reference points regarding where the fishery was or was headed prior to catch shares, concludes that catch shares are the cause.

If you look at the Pacific halibut fishery in Canada, in 1990 (the year prior to IVQ) the fishery was 6 days long, 435 vessels fished in a previously determined open period (based on tides) subject to unknown weather conditions and almost all of the fish was landed at a few facilities that could handle huge quantities of poor quality fish and then send it to the freezers.  The fishery exceeded the annual TAC almost every year (by an increasing amount as the season length decreased), fishing costs were very high, landed prices were low, employment was very short term, and no one made much money.  If the fishery had continued on that path, it would have shrunk to a 1 day fishery (as the US had already) with higher risks, higher costs, lower prices, shorter employment, and even fewer financial and social benefits derived from the fishery.  Also, what about all the lost fishing gear on the grounds from the crazy race for fish (not to mention the injuries and occasional loss of life), gear that continues to ghost fish and negatively impact the habitat and resource.  What about all the bycatch of juvenile halibut and other species (rockfish, sablefish, dogfish, skate, etc) that were being discarded (often with hook strippers or with little care for the fish because the race was on to turn over the gear as quickly as possible before the season closed).  So today we have only 170 vessels involved in a directed halibut fishery, but they probably provide an equivalent (or greater) number of person years of employment over an 8 month long fishery (directed fishery is closed from Mid November to Mid March annually due to the migration of spawning females).  Halibut is landed at more coastal communities by a larger number of buyers.  Everything is sold fresh to expanding markets, the quality is better, and the total benefits (economic and social) are much larger.  Of course there are lots of debates about leasing, armchair fishermen, crew shares, and the cost of entry into the fishery.  These are social engineering issues that will always be debated and the policy positions will shift over time. Indeed the only reason we are having these debates is because there is significant value in the fishery (many times what it was prior to IVQs), which is a reflection of the management systems success at improving the stability and outlook for the fishery. Everyone would agree that the BC halibut fishery is a well managed sustainable and valuable fishery providing significant benefits to many people and communities.  This was not the case in 1990 and if it hadn’t changed direction and adopted a new management system (in which catch shares was a significant component), the fishery would have continued to have increasing sustainability and economic viability problems (and the overall value and benefits would have remained low, shrunk or possibly ceased).

The BC groundfish trawl fishery is another example.  Prior to catch shares in 1997, the trawl fishery had many of the same issues as the halibut fishery – excessive harvesting capacity, growing TAC overages (based strictly on landed catch data), misreported and unreported catch, poor product quality, much of the landed catch being frozen, high fishing costs, poor landed prices, and a bleak industry financial profile).  The multi-species groundfish trawl fishery was kept open for 12 months of the year by using trip limits on species specific catch (similar to measures that were used in the west coast US groundfish fishery).  As fishing effort increased, or as the TAC came closer to being reached, the trip limits would be ratcheted down to try and constrain effort and stay within TACs.  The result were vessels would obtain one trip limit and while fishing for another limit discard the species for which they had already limited out on.  Of course everyone is in a race to catch each of the limits before the limits are further ratcheted down or the TAC is reached for any one or more species.  The results were very poor economic performance, unsustainable fishing practices, resource overharvesting, and greater than necessary habitat impacts (from a larger footprint associated with excessive effort).  We are talking about a fishery harvesting approximately 60 different stocks with a relatively less selective gear (otter trawl).  A new management system, which included IVQs as a key element, was introduced in which everyone is accountable for all the mortality associated with the quota species they catch and they must hold or find quota to cover the associated mortality.  Now of course this system only works if you allow for quota transferability, because it isn’t possible to perfectly allocate the species to individuals prior to fishing.  Markets, business plans, species abundance, weather, technology and public policy are dynamic and so to must be the movement of quota.  Indeed, this is where catch shares are most powerful, by letting the quota move quickly, efficiently and effectively to those catching the fish.  The reality is that if quota has to move (i.e. transferability), you are going to have leasing. Many times it is just fish being traded amongst vessels, but there are times when it is fish going one way and money coming back the other.  Now the reporter in this article will tell you that someone is benefiting from not fishing, but you can’t lose sight of the overall benefit from transferability – the fishery stays within TACs, the overall harvesting capacity is reduced, the carbon footprint and habitat impacts are reduced, the costs of fishing are reduced, and the sustainability and economic performance of the fishery are improved.  Yes, there will be a debate about the social issues associated with transferability, just as there are with halibut IVQs, but as stated above, those are social policy issues that public policy makers will continue to wrestle with, hopefully with a full understanding of the context, where the fishery came from and was going, what the alternative approaches would be, and the associated pros and cons of all possible management approaches.

Fisheries management is extremely complex and becoming increasingly complicated the more we learn about ecosystem function and processes, predator-prey relationships, and the associated impacts of human activities, of which fishing is only one of many. The fishery manager’s priority objective is to optimally sustain or rebuild large numbers of marine species and stocks with a secondary objective of providing controlled manageable access for sustenance, recreational and commercial activity in an equitable manner through inclusive processes that balances the needs and views of competing interest groups. It’s about finding the right balance, unlike the article by Ben Raines.


Bruce Turris has been directly involved in the management of commercial fisheries for 33 years and is currently President of Pacific Fisheries Management Inc., providing consulting, executive management, policy and strategic planning services for individuals, companies, industry organizations, NGOs and government agencies involved in commercial fisheries. Bruce has extensive experience with fisheries policy development, program analysis, and the negotiation, coordination and implementation of comprehensive commercial fishery management programs. Prior to his position with PFMI, Bruce was the head of the Groundfish Management Unit for the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans in Pacific Region.

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One Response

  1. From the perspective of an active British Columbia halibut fisherman whose tenure in the industry spanned the transition from the Olympic system to catch shares and up to the present, I affirm and endorse Bruce Turris’ account. And no, I did not receive a large windfall of quota on the implementation of catch shares, I largely bought my way in from retiring fishermen, bit by bit, as are my daughter and nephew who fish on our family boat. Dave Boyes

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