How to Save Fisheries and Save Jobs Too

Fishermen and fish both benefit from guaranteed shares of a fishery, a new study finds—although the practice also has critics.
Gaffing a halibut. (Photo: Scott Dickerson/Getty Images)
Mar 28, 2016· 3 MIN READ
Richard Conniff is the author of House of Lost Worlds: Dinosaurs, Dynasties, and the Story of Life on Earth and other books.

The way the world is currently consuming (and wasting) seafood, we will soon be living on our familiar blue planet with oceans that abound in plastic debris rather than marine life.

What if we could make a few relatively simple reforms and start seeing improved fisheries worldwide in just 10 years?

What if those reforms could ensure that 98 percent of the world’s fisheries would be biologically healthy and feeding the world on a sustainable basis by 2050?

What if, finally, it doesn’t require the old, deeply unpopular method of shutting down fisheries and leaving fishing boats idle at the dock?

That all may sound too good to be true, and there are critics willing to say so. But it’s achievable, according to a study published Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Researchers looked at the current status and trends in 4,700 fisheries around the world, representing 78 percent of the world’s reported catch. Then they projected the future prospects of those fisheries under three different management regimes: business as usual, management to maximize long-term catch, and something called rights-based management.

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Their conclusion is that rights-based management simultaneously feeds more people, boosts profits, and protects the marine resource.

If rights-based management is so good, why aren’t we already doing it? We are, said study coauthor Amanda Leland of the Environmental Defense Fund—just not enough.

“One of the really great stories is the red snapper fishery in the Gulf of Mexico,” Leland said. “When new management reforms were being considered 12 years ago, the snapper population was at just 4 percent of historical levels.” Regulators had tried to protect the redfish by the conventional method of making the season shorter.

“The fishermen were really struggling, trying to compete with one another, catch as many fish as they could, as fast as they could,” Leland explained. In practice that often meant spending more time at sea during the season, in all weather, consuming more fuel, to catch fewer fish.

Fed up, the fishers voted in 2007 for a rights-based management system called Catch Share. It works like this: Regulators set each year’s maximum sustainable catch, then each boat in the fishery prior to 2007 gets the right to a guaranteed share of that catch.

Instead of wasting fuel by racing to beat the other boats, said Leland, fishers can now maximize profits by timing their fishing according to when the weather is best or when market conditions provide a better price. Under the new system, revenues have more than doubled even as the population of red snapper has tripled.

The growing reliance on rights-based management in U.S. fisheries has resulted over the past 15 years in a dramatic turnaround, Leland said. It’s the reason, for instance, that you can now routinely find halibut in the supermarket—a season formerly limited to just two days a year is now open almost year-round. “The number of species considered overfished has declined from 92 to 29, a 70-percent decrease,” she said. “The number of ‘rebuilt’ species,” meeting the federal definition for recovery, “has gone from zero in 2000 to 39 today.”

The same sort of turnaround is happening in Belize since its 2011 decision to allow fishing communities to cordon off specific fishing grounds for local use only, establishing—and enforcing—their own Territorial Use Rights for Fisheries.

But asked about the triple promise of such systems—more food, better profits, and more fish in the sea—one critic was skeptical. “Oooh, win-win-win!” said Rashid Sumaila, a fisheries economist at the University of British Columbia. In a 2010 paper, he called such systems primarily “an instrument for promoting economic efficiency, rather than conservation or equity.” The experience in British Columbia, he said, is that more efficient fishing companies, or those that simply had more capital, bought out the less efficient ones, often leading to unemployment and other problems “that get pushed back onto society.” He conceded there are good elements to such systems if they’re managed with care and closely monitored. “I’m not throwing everything out,” he said, “but watch it.”

Christopher Costello, a resource economist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the lead author of the new study, countered that it’s possible to “fine-tune the design” of such systems “to achieve socially desirable outcomes. Our paper shows that if that is done well, fisheries around the world could be on a very strong path toward recovery.”

Another potential issue is that rights-based management would have little effect on the open seas, where no single nation exerts control. Costello acknowledged that but also noted that the vast majority of the global catch occurs in coastal waters, with only about 12 percent coming from the high seas.

The most promising conclusion in the study might just be that the countries with the most depleted fisheries—notably Asian countries, including Indonesia, India, Thailand, Vietnam, and the Philippines—would see the quickest recovery from the switch to rights-based management, assuming they have not already raced past the point where recovery is even possible.