Rotten gets it wrong about New England and catch shares

When we sat down to speak with the producers of Rotten, a new documentary series by Zero Point Zero Production, we were hopeful they would bring a thoughtful perspective to the complex challenge of sustainable fisheries management in New England. Unfortunately, the final product released this month does just the opposite.

Rotten does little to shed new light on the challenges that many players, including fishermen, conservationists and government, have been working together to try and solve. Instead, it perpetuates myths and half-truths about the sector (or “catch share”) management system implemented in the New England groundfish fishery in 2010. Furthermore, it doesn’t even attempt to offer an alternative vision for how to end the tragedy of the commons that drove this fishery—and many hard-working individuals who depend on it—to the brink of ruin.

Rotten starts by recounting a sad history that is familiar to every New England fisherman. Oceans teeming with life were exploited intensively by foreign vessels in the decades after World War II, sharply depleting fish stocks. In 1976, Congress responded by establishing an “Exclusive Economic Zone” of U.S. ocean territory out to 200 miles, and by incentivizing the growth of a domestic fishing sector. Over time, however, this led to a second sustainability crisis, with too many American boats chasing too few fish under a broken management system. The result was chronic overfishing and failed fishing businesses.

The human and environmental tragedy of this failure is captured poignantly in the documentary by New Bedford dockworker Ian Saunders:

When I was a kid we had a nice place in the west end [with a] swimming pool and all that, [but] we pretty much lost everything. My father started out as a longliner fishing swordfish, and they fished that out and there wasn’t anything left, so he went scalloping, and then they fished that out, and then the regulations started. It’s just been a mess my whole life.

Under this flawed system, cod and other groundfish “were being drained from the sea” and the industry consolidated in response, with a few big players—notably New Bedford seafood magnate Carlos Rafael—buying up a large number of permits from struggling fishermen who couldn’t make ends meet.

This all occurred, as Rotten readily acknowledges, long before the catch share management system was implemented. These are the exact problems that catch shares are designed to fix – and have been proven to fix in fisheries throughout the United States and around the world.

Yet far from focusing on solutions, the documentary goes on to promote a deeply flawed narrative about catch shares, EDF, and the New England groundfish fishery.

  • Catch shares are faulted for forcing fishermen to change the way they fish. Aaron Williams, a commercial fishing captain, explains regretfully that:

…there’s a lot of areas guys don’t go to because they’re afraid of catching something they don’t have enough quota for. So your mental picture of where you want to make a trip or where you want to fish for the day changes, because there’s a possibility you might catch something you might not have enough quota for.

Yet far from being a design flaw, this is precisely the kind of change in fishing patterns that catch shares seek to promote to keep catch within sustainable limits. Ask a fishing captain operating in the Pacific groundfish fishery, for example, and they may tell you how catch shares have unlocked remarkable innovations in the way they work—ranging from gear modifications to ‘risk pools’ that share information about encounters with depleted species between participants in real time—all ensuring that science-based catch limits are observed. This has helped fully recover six depleted species of Pacific groundfish years ahead of what scientists thought possible. As a direct result, total landings in this fishery have jumped nearly 50 percent—from 41 million pounds in 2011 (the year catch shares were implemented) to almost 60 million pounds in 2017.

  • The documentary-makers invite viewers to conclude that catch shares are somehow responsible for the prevalence of foreign and farmed fish in the U.S. marketplace. “The ripple effect of catch shares is felt every day in every restaurant and every supermarket in America,” the narrator warns forebodingly, before jumping to statistics about the percentage of our seafood we import. Yet in reality, catch share fisheries in the United States are the ones most capable of providing the sustainable, traceable and year-round supply of local seafood that buyers crave. That’s why American red snapper—overfished to just 3 percent of a healthy level before catch shares—is once again available from seafood counters across America. When you buy a Gulf Wild product, you can see the date and place it was landed, and meet the fisherman who operated the boat, via a QR code. Catch shares have fueled a three-fold increase in the Gulf red snapper spawning stock since they were implemented in 2007, and they have allowed fishermen to work and supply buyers not during ever-shorter fishing seasons, but 365 days a year.
  • The documentary offers constant warnings that catch shares are “privatizing a public resource” and pave the way for investments in fisheries coming from outside fishing communities. In reality, if catch share participants wish to ensure that quota can only be owned by active fishing operators, it is entirely possible to incorporate into the ground rules—as was done, for example, in Alaska’s halibut and sablefish catch share. In any event, in every non-catch share fishery in America, commercial operators catch fish—a public resource—and sell it for profit without paying a royalty to the government. The idea that catch shares “privatize” the resource by organizing that fishing activity in a way that incentivizes conservation and improves profitability is nothing more than hollow rhetoric.
  • Similarly, there are constant warnings that catch shares lead to consolidation. Yet Rotten makes clear that rapid consolidation occurred in this fishery long before catch shares were implemented. Moreover, as my colleague Jake Kritzer discusses on camera, EDF supports setting accumulation limits in catch share fisheries because they are a proven tool for limiting consolidation. EDF has helped fishery councils implement accumulation limits around the country. In New England, we have stood shoulder-to-shoulder with fishermen to urge adoption of accumulation limits through the Council process, but so far, unfortunately, to no avail.
  • Rotten makes the bizarre implication that EDF’s work on fisheries is somehow tainted by corporate and “far-right libertarian” donations that shape our motives. Yet the only example of “far-right” funding provided is simply false—EDF has never received a dime from the Charles Koch Foundation. Similarly, while our focus on results often leads us to partner with businesses, and we’re proud of that, EDF policy strictly prohibits donations from corporate partners, and our U.S. fisheries work receives no corporate money. Our motives are simple and transparent—to secure sustainable fisheries for the benefit of coastal communities and all Americans.
  • Having detailed Carlos Rafael’s 30-year record of galling criminality, the documentary goes on to imply that catch shares—in effect for just five years before the sting operation that led to Rafael’s conviction—were somehow responsible for his actions. The truth is that Rafael is a poster-child for the failures of groundfish management that date back decades. Any implication to the contrary is absurd on its face.

On one thing we can all agree: we have a long way to go to secure the vibrant New England groundfish fishery we all want to see. This points to a reality that we readily acknowledge. Catch shares are not a silver bullet, and the way in which they are designed and implemented really does matter.

As Jake made clear, New England groundfish are doing better today because of sector management. Peer-reviewed science makes a compelling case that the imposition of urgent conservation measures would have been “far worse for both consumers and producers” if they had occurred under the old “Days-at-Sea” system rather than as part of a transition to sector management. But it is also clear that, in contrast with other catch share fisheries, the sector system hasn’t yet unlocked the kind of upward spiral of innovation, cooperation, sustainability and profitability that we know is possible. Critically, we also know why this hasn’t happened.

In this complex multispecies fishery with such a troubled past, low levels of monitoring coverage (well below 20 percent) has been an Achilles heel. Minimal monitoring combined with low abundance of some key fish stocks (like Gulf of Maine cod) drives fishermen to discard fish and not report it, exacerbating problems with sustainability, trust, and the fisheries data that informs scientific assessments.

The good news is that if we fix the monitoring problem, the sector system provides a management framework in which this fishery can finally succeed. In an encouraging development, the New England Fishery Management Council is considering a proposal to strengthen monitoring coverage in the fishery. New technologies—including smart cameras that can identify when fishing activity is occurring and how many of which species are being caught—offer an opportunity to implement a transformative monitoring system, providing fishermen with twenty-first century tools that can deliver business and conservation success. Stakeholders are working together to design a monitoring system that can work for fish and fishermen. It is the critical remaining innovation this fishery needs.

These kinds of innovations should be our focus—in New England and far beyond—as we confront what this documentary rightly identifies as the global fishing crisis. That crisis is urgent and immediate, but a solution is also within reach. By focusing on proven tools and methods, we can create thriving, resilient oceans that support more fish, feed more people and improve prosperity. That’s a future to which all of us at EDF Oceans are fully committed.

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