Can a Change in Management Solve the World’s Most Pressing Marine Conservation Challenge and Foster Vibrant Coastal Communities? A new study published in the journal Marine Policy finds that reforming how fisheries are managed can successfully restore and maintain healthy fish populations and benefit both fishermen and fishing-dependent communities. The study evaluated 15 fisheries in the U.S. and British Columbia before and after adopting "catch shares” — a type of fishery management increasingly common worldwide.
Catch shares, the study found, delivers “clear gains in environmental performance (and) major economic improvements” as well as dramatic improvements in safety for fishermen. The improvements were found across a range of fisheries in the Pacific, Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico and extended to fishermen from both small and large vessels, using a diversity of gears and targeting a variety of fish. In contrast, the study found that these same fisheries performed poorly under traditional fishery management in virtually all areas.
Overall, the study is a dose of good news at a time when most news we hear about oceans is bad. The results also come at a time when some in Congress are pushing to eliminate fishermen’s ability to pursue catch shares for their fisheries. The findings point to a clear choice about which strategy the nation should pursue to achieve abundant oceans that also allow fishermen and fishing-dependent communities to prosper.
The study found that:
- Fishermen who often scrape by to make a living flourish after catch shares are adopted. On average, revenues nearly doubled for individual vessels under catch shares and total revenue to the entire fishing fleet grew dramatically, providing coastal communities with a much needed influx of cash in today’s financially difficult times. Before catch shares were adopted, fishermen under traditional management saw their revenues steadily drop.
- Catch limits set to prevent overfishing and ensure sustainable fishing stocks were rarely exceeded under catch shares, while the fisheries exceeded the catch limits half of the time under traditional management. Meeting these conservation goals allowed fish populations to rebound, and the benefits accrued to fishermen as the catch limits were raised by an average of 19 percent in the ten year-period after catch shares were adopted.
- Fishing safety nearly tripled across fisheries after catch shares were adopted. Fishing is the deadliest occupation in America. Improving fishing safety not only prevents needless loss of fishermen’s lives, but also reduces the costs to government for conducting search and rescue operations. For example, the report cites a reduction in search and rescue missions in the Alaska halibut fishery from 33 a year prior to catch share management to fewer than ten a year under catch shares.
- Employment in these fisheries under traditional management was unstable, unsafe, and short term. On average, full time opportunities shrank in these fisheries and total employment, expressed in terms of full time equivalent jobs, fell by more than half in the five years leading up to the adoption of catch shares. Making the switch to catch shares halted the downward trend, and, though the number of unstable, short-terms jobs decline in these fisheries, total employment grows slightly.
- Fishermen enjoyed significantly greater access to fish through the year after the fisheries switched to catch shares. Under traditional management, fishing seasons were on average only 63 days long, with some fisheries such as that for Alaska crab and halibut having seasons lasting only three days. After catch shares were adopted, fishermen in these fisheries enjoyed seasons lasting an average of 245 days.
- The amount of fish wasted in the process of fishing drops dramatically once catch shares are adopted. Traditionally a problem that has plagued commercial fishing and undermined conservation goals worldwide, so-called discards — the amount of fish thrown overboard dead or dying instead of being kept for consumption because, for example, they were too small or not in season — dropped 66 percent during the decade after catch share implementation.
Although the report’s findings of catch share performance are overwhelmingly positive, it also reveals that there are no perfect solutions to the challenges fisheries face. Any change in management will affect stakeholders differently. For example, the study reported that some fish processors that were tooled to process large amounts of fish in a short period of time had to adjust under catch shares as the flow of fish became steadier and the gluts eliminated. In some regions, mid-sized ports grew larger while smaller ports saw decreased landings. And the labor market shifted in these fisheries from many part-time opportunities to fewer full time positions, even while total employment grew. These differential impacts are a possible explanation for why catch shares have proven controversial among some members of Congress, even though the report clearly shows that the economic hardship and environmental decline were far greater under traditional management before catch shares were adopted.
Fifteen major federal fisheries were assessed in the study, which was authored by business and fisheries experts at Redstone Strategy Group and at Environmental Defense Fund. The study evaluated 12 federal U.S. catch share programs and three British Columbian catch shares with shared US/Canadian stocks. The study tracked performance from five years prior to catch share implementation to up to ten years after implementation, and shows that catch shares consistently outperform traditional management. Today, there are 16 federal US catch share programs in six of the eight fishery management regions: Collectively, they make up about half of the value and over three quarters of the volume of all federal landings.
Worldwide, more than 600 unique species of fish are now managed by more than 275 catch share programs. However, these still represent a minority of fisheries. This study shows that changing management to catch shares can rebuild depleted fisheries and restore fishermen and fishing communities to prosperity in a way that no other kind of management can do.