Kath and Theo Mosman
The crunch of shovels into ice, which had been stockpiled for days at port in Kodiak, Alaska, once signaled the start and finish of the fishing season – thousands of heaped-up halibut, the whole year’s catch all at once. Removed from fishing boats and refrigerated seawater, the fish waited outside, getting warm, in the long queue to the cold-storage warehouse, as ice was spread across the concrete floor. Atop that was spread a layer of halibut. Then another layer of ice. Then yet more halibut – until it became a frozen mountain of flatfish. The reason why dock and deck were filled to the gills? Overfishing.
The blink-and-you’ll-miss-it halibut season was one of those examples of the law of unintended consequences. As a way to protect fish stocks, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council in the 1970s decreased the fishing season, which once spanned more than half the year. But the harvest only intensified. By the late 1980s, the season had been slashed to as little as 24 or 48 hours. Everyone in the Alaskan fleet went out, sleepless, facing storms as strong as hurricanes and the sinking of fellow fishermen’s boats. All in a race for fish.
“Put yourself in the shoes of a man who’s trying to make as much as he can – a good percentage of his living – in one day,” says Mark Lundsten, a former Alaskan commercial longline fisherman. “It was very, very competitive. Whatever everybody else is catching, it’s coming out of your pocket. That’s how you felt.”
The shortening of fishing seasons, along with other “one-size-fits-all” management methods such as trip limits and gear changes, largely fails, according to both fishermen and managers, because it does not remove competition.
“That’s the whole fundamental basis of the problem for the last 50 years,” says Don Leal, director of research at the Property and Environmental Research Center, a Montana-based think tank that seeks to use market mechanisms to protect the environment. To Leal, fisheries are “a classic example” of the “tragedy of the commons.” This theory argues that any public-trust resource is viewed as up for grabs, and hence, imperiled, as individuals rush to exploit it for themselves. Common resources (the atmosphere, say) are at once owned by everyone and belong to no one, an arrangement that reduces the incentives for responsibility and leads to the resource being ruined or wasted. In the end, one herder’s cattle may overgraze a communal pasture, or one fisherman’s net may snare the last shimmering fish of its kind.
And, indeed, there are few global resources so commonly held as the oceans. The fatal future of global fisheries worldwide was predicted in 2006 by Boris Worm in an oft-cited article in the journal Science. Worm and his co-authors predict that, at current levels of exploitation and water quality, all fisheries will collapse by 2048. By 2003, a staggering 27 percent of them already had. Rod Fujita, director of the Ocean Innovations Unit at Environmental Defense Fund, adds perspective: “It’s tragic, because fish are really wildlife if you think about it. It’s not a commodity like corn. It’s a wild animal.”
Fujita and others in the ocean conservation community believe they have found a way to protect some of those wild animals that are being fished to the brink of extinction. Called individual fishing quotas (IFQs) or individual transferable quotas (ITQs), “catch shares” are similar to the tradable privileges in the cap-and-trade regulation of carbon emissions. Under catch share systems, governments set a scientifically allowable total catch number for a specific fishery, then allocate shares of that total to area fishermen – either individuals, fishing companies, or Indigenous communities. After the initial allocation, fishermen are free to buy and sell quotas.
“It’s like a piñata party,” Dr. Fujita says. “When you whack at the piñata, and the candy falls to the ground, all the kids race around to snatch up the maximum goodies. But now we can say, ‘Here’s your share of the total allowable catch. It’s your privilege to catch that.’ There’s no reason to race.”
The idea that fishing entities could be guaranteed a share of the total allowable catch – i.e., what is considered to be a safe surplus for harvest – was developed more than 35 years ago. In the 1970s and 1980s, British Columbia, New Zealand, and Iceland pioneered ITQs that stretch 200 miles from shore in their national waters. Similar systems have since spread to the US and Australia.
Individual catch shares were introduced into the Alaskan halibut grounds in 1995, and the fishery turned around virtually overnight. The halibut season was lengthened to nine months. As fish steadily trickled in over time – instead of being dumped all at once – prices went up, and so did fishermen’s earnings. Former halibut fisherman Lundsten raves, “If I share a spot with somebody on the grounds, it’s not a big deal. Suddenly we went from competition to cooperation.”
For New Zealand’s Maori, ITQs have been an important mechanism for protecting not only ocean ecosystems, but also helping to preserve their traditional lifestyle. Tutekawa Wyllie – a former member of the New Zealand Parliament as well as a one-time player on the country’s national rugby team – is currently the general manager of commercial relationships at Aotearoa Fisheries Limited, the largest Maori-owned fishing company in the country. Part of his responsibilities include assisting iwi (tribes) grow their fishing assets. After decades of litigation, ITQs have allowed these Indigenous people to control the majority of fishing rights in their country.
Wyllie explains: “Each and every iwi (56 of them) are, in their own right, owners of ITQ. Through those iwi or tribes, every individual person of Maori blood is a beneficiary. Presently there are about 550,000 beneficiaries. That includes those passed on, those living and those still to come.…We still believe that our people who’ve passed on are still with us. And for many tribes, especially coastal tribes, a lot of our people are buried at sea. And so therefore, they are with us in our lives, with us living in the sea, looking after us as guardians when we go to fish.
“The ITQ that my tribe owns allows me to take [my granddaughter, Taipari] on the water and in tangible terms, pull up fish, take fish from the sea, without fear of breaking the New Zealand law, because in the eyes of New Zealand society, ITQ gives me the legitimacy. That’s all it does for me…. respect in the eyes of other New Zealanders and of our relationship with the sea.
“‘Fishing’ is probably an inadequate word. Our relationship with Tangaroa, God of the Sea, more aptly describes what this is about, and even that is short of the mark….We trace our genealogies to the sea and to Tangaroa. We are the sea and the sea is us….The North Island of New Zealand is a fish, fished up by our demigod ancestor Maui standing on his canoe, which is the South Island of New Zealand…. We have a proud tradition of seafarers and fisher people. We came on canoes to this land, some came on the backs of whales, octopus, and other marine creatures.
“It’s the reason why we place a huge emphasis on the health and well-being on the land and on the sea – because the land is our mother and the sea is her son. It’s a living world.”
It’s not “rocket science,” Lundsten says. “Fishing is like a bank account. You have to live on the interest and leave the principal intact.” The principal, in this case, is the amount of fish you want to leave in the water so that your share of the fishery swims on. The interest, varying from year to year, comes in the form of the total allowable catch, which will stay higher if the fishermen are good conservationists.
Catch shares work as a kind of “stock market”: That is, their value stays high when fish stocks stay high.
After the system is in place, ITQs can seem nearly priceless. “They’re ten times more valuable than your boat,” Lundsten says. “It’s worthless without them. And everybody knows there’s too much to lose.…It was the only sustainable window we saw to go through.”
Fishermen come to see that it’s in their best interest to protect the local stock of fish. They become conservationists.
“Under ITQs, fishermen have a strong incentive to lobby scientists to ‘get the quota right’ – that is, to take the long-run viability of the fishery into account,” says Christopher Costello, a professor of environmental and resource economics at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “Without ITQs, the incentive is the opposite – fishermen lobby for increasing quotas.”
Without quotas, fishermen are often in a race to bring in the biggest catch. But once an ITQ goes into effect, fishermen don’t have an incentive to catch as much as they can, since they are held to a strict limit. Rather, their chief goal is to lower their fishing costs, allowing them to maximize the value of their set share of the catch.
Dr. Costello’s team is credited with completing the first global analysis of ITQs. Their findings on the 121 fisheries with ITQs were published in Science in 2008: “Implementation of catch shares halts, and even reverses, the global trend toward widespread collapse.” In New Zealand, for example, nearly 500 sub-populations of fish are managed with ITQs, the vast majority of which are considered sustainable.
While catch shares seem to be an excellent tool for at once safeguarding ocean ecosystems and helping economically stressed fishing communities, some ocean advocates question whether the market is the best mechanism for conservation.
“A note of caution needs to ring a bell,” says Laura Pagano, oceans attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Reliance on market-based incentives to achieve conservation isn’t the wisest unless you have good safeguards, like unbiased oversight and regulation by the government.”
Greenpeace agrees. The organization has “serious reservations,” says US Ocean Campaigns Director John Hocevar, about “privatizing public resources.”
“I was against IFQs myself 10 years ago,” says David A. Krebs, owner of Florida-based Arial Seafoods, a fishing company in the Gulf of Mexico. With 40 years experience on the water before and after IFQs for red snapper (and coming on-line soon for grouper), he feels the positive shift in tide. “Fishermen are realizing that, hey, we’re responsible for this now. It is up to us to be the stewards.”
Observers on all sides agree the hardest part is getting the system started and deciding how to allocate shares.
“The only problem, the only problem, with IFQs is initial allocation,” Krebs says.
Some argue that the government wastes enormous potential income during initial IFQ allocation by giving them away for free. They compare fisheries to the long list of past giveaways – such as grazing and mineral rights – that have led to such undesirable outcomes as the pouring of highly subsidized water onto California crops. A better method, critics say, would be to replicate the auctioning of the crowded FM broadcast spectrum, a move that netted the government billions of dollars through the sale of bandwidths (another commons).
Many fishermen, though, are opposed to the suggestion that they would have to pay for initial allocation. Lundsten says: “You’ve made your living forever catching fish, and now you’re going to put it on eBay?”
Generally, shares are apportioned to individuals, companies, and groups based on their historical participation in the fishery. But a sobering, all-too-frequent reality often complicates the apportionments: too many boats chasing too few fish.
Krebs describes how an “overcapitalized” fishery may have once supported a larger fleet – 500 boats, for example – when “fishing was good.” But once fish stocks are over-harvested and the need for a quota becomes apparent, the fishery may be able to support only 300 boats. Krebs says, “So the heartburn is having to say, ‘Now you 200 boats, you have to do something different in your life.’”
With consolidation also comes the concern that smaller fishermen can become virtual “sharecroppers,” reduced to working the boats of larger companies that manage to accumulate the tradable quotas.
As an example of how to protect small, independent fishermen, Dr. Fujita calls a new, massive management plan for West Coast trawlers “The Cadillac of ITQs.” Covering an unprecedented 92 species (mostly groundfish and whiting), the plan sets aside a portion of the quota share for small fishing communities; limits the quantity of quotas any single entity can accumulate; and allows anyone (newcomers to fishing, deckhands, etc.) to buy even the smallest fraction of a share.
There may also be some upsides to consolidation. Those “too many boats” expend a lot of effort that does not catch more fish, according to the World Bank. The Bank’s “The Sunken Billions” study found: “If fish stocks were rebuilt, the current marine catch could be achieved with approximately half of the current global fishing effort. This illustrates the massive overcapacity in the global fleet.” This is partly why, the study concluded, the global marine seafood trade has accumulated an economic loss over the last three decades in the order of two trillion dollars.
“Catch shares can be a good tool for re-aligning the interest of fishermen with conservation,” says Dr. Worm. But he warns that they may not work well in the high seas, places where “governance and enforcement are currently weak.” And some fish species are simply not good candidates for this type of management. One example is the depleted orange roughy, which lives 135 years – a fish that simply out-tests the fishermen’s patience to cash in.
World Bank Senior Fisheries Specialist Michael Arbuckle says, “If we start to measure the success of fisheries management not in terms of fishers employed but rather in terms of the wealth generated that can underpin economic growth (and, in a developing country context, pro-poor growth), then the true value of IFQ type regimes might then truly come to the fore.”
Perhaps one of the greatest virtues of IFQs is the way they force fishermen to account for their “bycatch” – the fish (and often birds, sharks, and sea mammals) that boats do not intend to catch but that end up in nets anyway. Estimates vary on how severe the fish bycatch problem is, but anywhere from eight to 20 percent of all the fish caught in the world is discarded.
Except in catch share programs, in which the cornerstone motto is “make every fish count.”
“Fish don’t know not to bite a hook,” Krebs says. “You can’t put out a sign, &am
p;lsquo;Red Snapper: Don’t Bite This Hook’ or ‘Grouper: Don’t Bite This Hook.’”
Every fish is brought in and counted toward the individual quota. Nothing is wasted. Three hours before docking, Krebs radios in so law enforcement can meet him. He needs an inspection code, in real-time data, before any fish can be loaded onto trucks. Some days he carries an onboard observer. Every day he is monitored by GPS and an onboard camera.
“Accountability is just accountability,” he says. “If you’re not counting every fish, how can you have a quota?” Krebs calls on everybody “to get in the same canoe” of accountability. “We’ve had years when we’ve harvested 20 million pounds of red snapper just to keep 9 million.” He says the difference was due to both the vast catch by the recreational sector, which is unregulated, and bycatch, the throwing away of unintended species and of snapper under the size limit – most of which subsequently died.
What IFQs encourage, above all else, is precision. In some areas, fish have died when harvesters simply could not meet the deadline in the race for fish. When the Alaskan grounds were full of those man-sized halibut, the task of hauling gear back onto boats took too long. Miles of longline were left behind, sitting at the bottom of the ocean, loaded with dead fish. “Conscientious guys came back and hauled their gear,” Lundsten recalls. “Other guys said, ‘Screw it. Let the crabs get ‘em.’”
The tragedy of bycatch and, occasionally, the need to “cover your catch” by swapping quota with that of a different kind of fisherman reminds Marion Larkin, a groundfish trawler in Washington state, of what it truly means to make every fish count: “People have to learn to fish cleanly.”
Elaine Miller Bond is an Oakland-based freelance writer-photographer whose work has been featured on Discovery Channel Canada, The Washington Post, and The American Naturalist. Her upcoming book, Affimals: Affirmations + Animals, inspires happiness through the recounting of real behaviors of animals.
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