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Sealife: The Friendliest Catch

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The Friendliest Catch
Economic incentives help fishermen and fish.

After years of overfishing, in 1991 Alaskan halibut fishermen were allowed only two days to catch their annual limit. “These two days were frantic. They were unsafe, and they brought horrible, dramatic, unintended consequences,” says Diane Regas, associate vice president for the Environmental Defense Fund’s Oceans program. Fishermen worked day and night, losing gear, wasting fish, and catching seabirds. To avoid that dangerous frenzy, in 1995 the fishery adopted an innovative management system called catch shares. Today it’s making fishermen’s lives safer, reducing the seabird bycatch, and preventing fisheries collapse, a problem in one-third of fisheries worldwide.

The Alaskan halibut fishery was among the first in the United States to implement the scheme, which was originally put in place on a large scale in New Zealand in the 1980s and has become popular in Canada, Iceland, and Japan. In January the Gulf of Mexico’s commercial tilefish and grouper fisheries will be the latest to adopt the program. Here’s how it works: Federal scientists and regional fishery management councils set a total allowable catch that should enable the population to reproduce sustainably, and each fisherman receives a percentage. They have nine months, on average, to fill their allotment, so they don’t need to work in bad weather or fish carelessly.

A study of 11,135 fisheries from 1950 to 2003 showed that catch shares halve the chance of a fishery collapsing. Chris Costello, a University of California-Santa Barbara economist, says the incentive used to be to catch as much fish as possible. “With catch shares, the incentive is to think about the future of the stock, because with the value of the asset you own—say, 2 percent—you get 2 percent every year. So if the fish stock rebuilds, you get 2 percent of a bigger number. You now have a built-in incentive to say, ‘I want you to get the quota right, and not overharvest, because if we overharvest, my 2 percent will be worth less every year.’ ”

Catch shares are slowly gaining traction in the United States, where 12 of the 531 fisheries managed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have adopted catch shares (four others are in transition). The Obama administration has been very supportive, and participants have eagerly embraced them. “I would never go back to the old way,” says Bill Tucker, a reef fisherman in the Gulf of Mexico. “It’s a bad business model for people trying to make a living from fishing, because it sets up a scenario for the tragedy of the commons. [Catch shares] is a market-based system that operates on the principles our country was founded on—market-based capitalism.”

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