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Friday, October 3, 2008

Could Quotas Keep Fish on the Menu?

A fresh catch of halibut is prepared for market on a dock in Homer, Alaska
A fresh catch of halibut is prepared for market on a dock in Homer, Alaska

Giving a man a fish — not teaching him how to do it — may actually be a better way to preserve the world's dwindling fish stocks, according to a new study published in Science on Sept. 19. Scientists and fishermen have known for years that global fish populations are in bad shape. According to one bleak 2006 study, all of the world's major commercial fisheries could collapse by 2048 because of overfishing and loss of habitat. Now a team of economists and biologists say they know one way to prevent the loss of this crucial resource in global waters: more quotas.

In the past, fishing quotas — or the government allotments of set amounts of fish to private parties — have not always won over the hearts of seafarers. But looking at more than 11,000 fisheries worldwide, researchers led by scientists from the University of California, Santa Barbara, found that countries that had effectively privatized their fish stock by doling out quotas to individual fishermen were half as likely to experience a collapse as those that did not. "The idea is that by securing access for individuals or select groups for a long period of time, they have an incentive to steward the resources," explains the study's lead author, Christopher Costello, a resource economist at U.C. Santa Barbara. "If they overharvest or destroy habitat today, they will have a less vibrant stock in the future, and thus lower future profits."

According to Costello, fisheries, or areas where a certain kind of fish is caught, represent a textbook example of a tragedy of the commons — the classic economics metaphor for a shared resource that is ruined because of competition between users. Giving fishermen catch shares — also known as Individual Fishing Quotas (IFQs) — doesn't dampen competition for fish, but manages it by essentially making fishermen stakeholders in a fishery. Costello explains that IFQs, which can be bought, sold or traded just like stocks, discourage overfishing by giving fishermen a vested interest in preserving the future health of the resource.

Despite growing evidence of their effectiveness, catch-share programs are still a relative rarity. Only 121 of the more than 11,000 fisheries Costello and his team studied were using the system. But Gunnar Knapp, an economist at the University of Alaska, says the idea of privatizing fish is catching on as fishermen realize that it may be the best way to protect fish — and their own jobs.

Take Alaska's halibut fishery, which began a catch-share program in 1995. At the time, the halibut season had become a 48-hour scramble to catch the most fish allowed by law, according to Linda Behnken, director of the Alaska Longline Fishermen's Association and a commercial fisherman in Sitka since 1982. "No matter what the weather was, everyone with a line and hook was going out," says Behnken. "And this is Alaska. The weather gets bad here. Boats went down. Lives were lost." Things got even worse when the fishermen all returned with their catches at the same time, flooding the market and driving down the profits they were risking their lives to secure.

Since the introduction of catch shares, however, Alaska's halibut season has gone from one or two short days to nine months. Fishermen are also less likely to risk bad weather, pushing fatalities down 15%. And because the market is no longer flooded with halibut one week out of the entire year, the price of fish has increased fourfold. "IFQs have made fishing safer," Behnken says. "And it's better for the resource."

But as evidenced by the handful of countries that practice them, catch-share programs remain controversial. In New Zealand, where they've been in place for decades, fishermen complain that the practice leads to unfair consolidation: as large companies buy and amass quotas, smaller operators can't compete with the low prices those big firms can afford to set because they're selling more. Others have raised concerns about the privatization of what has traditionally been considered a public resource. But Knapp says the biggest problem with fish quotas is figuring out how to allocate them fairly in the first place. "It's analogous to open range land that you divide up and give to ranchers," Knapp says. "If you come back in 10 years and ask the ranchers how they feel about it, they're going to think it's great. The people who didn't get any land won't be so happy."

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