Are Small Fishermen Facing Extinction?

The U.S. government-enforced ‘catch shares’ program seems to be helping fish populations, but not the actual fishermen.

Fishermen clean and sort Atlantic Cod in the North Atlantic Ocean. (Photo: Getty Images)

A six-time grantee of the National Geographic Expeditions Council, Jon writes about all things ocean.

At a glance, “catch shares”—a government-enforced attempt to fairly divvy up access to the sea to fishermen—sounds like an equitable way to both limit overfishing and keep fishermen in business.

But depending on which fishermen, environmentalist, or hedge fund manager you listen to, the system is either working tremendously or failing dramatically.

What exactly are catch shares and how is the system supposed to work?

In a lengthy report for the Center for Investigative Reporting, Susanne Rust explains that catch shares provide harvesting or access rights to fishermen. “These rights—worth tens of billions of dollars in the United States alone—are translated into a percentage, or share, that can then be divided, traded, sold, bought or leveraged for financing, like any asset.”

In the real world, that means the big guys are getting bigger and many of the small guys are being squeezed out of business.

“We’ve been frozen out,” Larry Collins, a crabman who docks near the Golden Gate Bridge, tells the CIR.

“It’s not the frontier like it used to be. Everything is clean and so businesslike,” says Carolyn Creed, a Rutgers University anthropologist who has studied catch shares in the mid-Atlantic region.

Because of catch shares, the U.S. government is of the opinion that all is well on the fishing front, from the Aleutian Islands to Maine, where catches are up over the past decade.

According to the CIR, regulators worked with regional fishery management organizations to divvy up shares—or a percentage of the fishery—to fishermen and corporations. The government then allocated shares based on past fishing hauls: The more you fished a region, the more shares you received. But from there, each system can vary. Some systems limit the number of shares any one entity can own; others require that owners must actively fish. And some place no restrictions on the number of shares awarded. In each case, shares have been awarded to the fishermen and corporations at no cost. But they can turn around and sell these shares.

Given that mankind has already successfully sucked 90 percent of the fish out of the world’s collective oceans, anything that helps fish stocks rebound should be regarded a good thing, right?

From its perspective, government enforcers say catch shares have helped improve the efficiency of fishermen and resulted in fewer boats chasing after a much-reduced fish population.

Which for some is exactly the hitch in the system. While fishing remains strong, the number of fishermen has dramatically declined. The CIR study says there are 3,700 fewer fishing boats in ten of the defined fishing areas that have utilized catch shares since 2010; along the East Coast some fleets are down by 60 percent.

It’s not just the government that favors catch shares. An alliance of environmental groups—led by the Environmental Defense Fund—free-market advocates, food retailers and seafood companies also supports the system.

Today, some of the biggest owners of catch shares are private equity investors, including the Carlyle Group, which in 2010 bought the China Fishery Group that fishes from the Arctic to the South Pacific. It also owns the world’s largest fish-processing boat, a 50,000 ton Lafayette.

One of the confusions in the whole debate is actually semantic. Going back to 1996, Congress has called for catch limits, which put a cap on the number of fish that can be caught in any one fishery. Catch shares, by comparison, is a kind of management system that awards exclusive access to fishing areas to specific fishermen.

According to the CIR, it is conservative interests—many of them free-market advocates, including the Charles Koch Foundation and the Reason Foundation—that have hooked up with the EDF to “fuel a heavily funded campaign to consolidate the fishing industry, public records and interviews show.”

While fish populations around the country are showing signs of rebounding, critics of catch shares say it’s thanks to the previously enforced catch limits.

The Natural Resources Defense Council takes a dramatically different if subtle stand than the EDF.

In a recent report, “Bringing Back the Fish,” the NRDC concludes that 21 of 44 fish species that it studied have met rebuilding targets and 7 others have made significant progress, increasing their populations by at least 25 percent—thanks to catch limits, not catch shares.

Fishermen like the Bay Area’s Larry Collins, along with other fishermen and some small fishing organizations, have sued the government over catch shares, arguing that the program unfairly shut out small fishermen.

“I believe local families should have access to local fish stocks. And there’s a danger that will never happen again,” Collins told the CIR. “If you’re going to privatize the system, give the shares to the community, not the guys driving Mercedes, not the guys who got those Mercedes by destroying the fishery.

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