Sharing the catch: Study says fishing cooperatives can help reverse declines
Marine researchers have found that vesting fishermen with catch shares can help reverse the trend of declining fishery stocks. In a study of...
Los Angeles Times
DUTCH HARBOR, Alaska — Marine researchers have found that vesting fishermen with catch shares can help reverse the trend of declining fishery stocks.
In a study of global harvests to be published today in the journal Science, a team of ecologists and economists says giving fishermen or cooperatives fixed catch shares — rather than forcing them to compete in a derby-style harvest — can make fishing safer, help preserve fish populations and help battered stocks recover.
Dutch Harbor, an Aleutian Island port, used to be the epicenter of the derby crab fisheries, with fishermen racing to fill up their holds during brief seasons for king and Bering Sea snow crab, competition that helped fuel the early success of "The Deadliest Catch," the hit reality show on The Discovery Channel. Many of these crab vessels are based in the Puget Sound area.
The Alaskan king-crab fishery switched over to "individual fishing quotas" several years ago, following the success stories of Alaskan halibut and pollock and other fisheries in New Zealand and Iceland — where shares of the catch have been parceled out to fishermen, permitting them to fill their quotas in a more rational way.
But catch shares are not a cure-all for troubled ocean harvests. King- and snow-crab harvests still remain far below historic highs, and this fall both are expected to be lower than last year.
And in New Zealand, orange roughy stocks took a nose-dive despite a switch to the new catch-share system in the early 1990s.
Andy Rosenberg, former deputy director of the National Marine Fisheries Service now at the University of New Hampshire, said it remains crucial for government to limit the total catch to keep stocks healthy enough to reproduce. Then there's the problem of fairly distributing the shares or quotas. Inevitably, Rosenberg said, some fishermen will feel shortchanged and scream that government "has stolen our heritage."
The authors of the catch-share study include resource economist Christopher Costello and marine ecologist Steven Gaines, both of the University of California, Santa Barbara, and economist John Lynham of the University of Hawaii. They examined more than 50 years of catch data from 11,135 fisheries worldwide that another team of scientists had compiled to show that nearly a third of the world's commercial fisheries have collapsed, such as the cod off New England and many rockfish off California.
Some scientists — in a controversial study published in Science in 2006 — predicted that if overfishing, pollution and habitat destruction continue unabated, all the world's fisheries would collapse by 2048. In that study, a fishery was considered collapsed if catches fall to 10 percent of historic highs.
The new study found that the 121 fisheries that switched to individual quotas were only half as likely to collapse.
The authors also found that a quota system not only can reverse the trend toward collapsing fisheries but also can help them return to thriving enterprises.
Costello said he was surprised to find that the data showed such clear support for a fundamental tenet of resource economics: A change in incentives can remove the motivation to outcompete someone else and switch to longer-term conservation.
He likens it to handing a milkshake to five kids with five straws.
"The incentive is for the kids to slurp like hell even if they get a brain freeze," Costello said. "Contrast that to dividing the milkshake into five little cups. The kids can enjoy it as long as they want and get a higher payoff from it, and don't get the brain freeze. That's exactly what we find in fisheries."
The authors acknowledge that catch shares are not a panacea. They note that such quotas don't have to be doled out to individual fishermen but can be parceled out to fishing cooperatives or communities — as is being considered in the New England cod fishery.
The study was funded, in part, by the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, which donated $5 million to a multipronged effort to restore the rockfish and cod fisheries off the coasts of California, Oregon and Washington. Those are the bug-eyed fish with tasty white flesh often sold as rock cod or red snapper.
The Pacific Fishery Management Council is set at its November meeting in San Diego to give a final vote on switching to an individual quota system. It's designed to follow mandates from Congress for more quota systems to reduce the number of commercial boats on the water and the amount of "by-catch," those fish caught and shoveled overboard dead because fishermen don't have permits to land them. Such quotas can be bought and sold and leased to consolidate the commercial fleet.
Alaskan halibut has become the poster child for how the system can work well. It's gone from a deadly race to fish over a few days to a leisurely quota system that has delivered a steady supply of fresh halibut into restaurants and seafood cases and given fishermen more money per pound of fish.
The switch has transformed Dutch Harbor, America's biggest seafood port, from a seasonal work camp to a year-round town with so many families that it needs to build a second school, said Mayor Shirley Marquardt.
"This used to be a town on steroids; it was totally nuts," Marquardt said. Businesses would work to exhaustion for a few weeks a year, importing vast numbers of workers and supplies. Logistics were a nightmare. Shortages of fuel and transportation were common. "Everything was a crisis."
Now, catches of crab, halibut and pollock arrive in staggered schedules, resulting in less waste of fish and longer-term employment for packinghouse workers, said Sinclair Wilt, who runs a seafood processing plant here for Alyeska Seafoods Inc.
What's been lost is the raucous local bar, called the Elbow Room, which closed its doors. Gone too are the brief, seasonal jobs once popular among college students in need of a quick infusion of cash.
Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, now the Republican Party's vice-presidential nominee, worked in Alyeska's plant for three weeks in 1987 at the end of her collegiate years.
"I'm honored to confirm that the governor once worked at this plant," Wilt said. "She was only here three weeks. She knows hard work and she's eligible for rehire if her current prospects don't work out."
Seattle Times reporter Hal Bernton contributed to this story.
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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