A hearing today in the House Committee on Natural Resources, Subcommittee on Insular Affairs, Oceans and Wildlife mostly overlooked evidence of the benefits of catch shares and instead zeroed in on fears. Out of the eight witnesses who testified, just one was a fisherman, Bob Dooley, who has actually fished in a catch share program.
Reflecting on his personal experience fishing in catch share-managed fisheries, Bob Dooley, a fisherman from California, told the committee that “an investment in catch shares … will provide huge benefits to fishing families and coastal communities.” Other fishermen supportive of catch shares submitted written comments such as Glen Brooks, a grouper fisherman from Florida and president of the Gulf Fishermen's Association. A number of pro-catch share fishermen also came to the hearing with bold t-shirts that read “Fisherman for Catch Shares.”
The mostly negative tenor of the hearing didn't come as a surprise. Fishermen and lawmakers have good reasons to be frustrated these days. Overfishing has continued in many of the nation’s most valuable fisheries despite years of ever-restrictive measures that have put thousands of fishermen out of business. Today more than 60 federal fish stocks are overfished or have overfishing occurring. The result is declining catches and shrinking revenues for fishermen.
Contrast that picture with catch shares, which can lead to greater prosperity, sustainability and flexibility for fishermen. When the red snapper fishery in the Gulf of Mexico faced severe restrictions because of overfishing, fishery managers worked with commercial fishermen to develop a catch share program, which has increased dock-side prices, decreased bycatch and helped end overfishing (Steele 2008). Red snapper populations are now rebounding, meaning more fish for everyone, including recreational fishermen.
There was some talk today about concern for fishing communities and the tools available with catch shares – and not available under conventional management – like permit banks, quota set-asides like adaptive management programs, and community development quotas. These tools guarantee that the values of communities will be respected whether that means providing a way for new fishermen to enter the fishery or making sure that jobs associated with the fishery remain local.
Many of the witnesses complained about the impacts on their businesses and communities of shortened fishing seasons under traditional management systems, yet failed to recognize that shifting to catch shares would allow them to fish throughout the year.
This hearing should have focused more on how to design catch shares that best reflect the needs and values of fishermen, fishing communities and the nation. That’s a big enough job and where the discussion about catch shares ought to be.