The Corner

Overfishing: Another Gulf Disaster?

Steve Hayward brings up catch shares in his excellent post on cap-and-trade, and he seems to be as ambivalent as I am on market-based regulation. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Fishing is one example that probably deserves more attention than it has received.

When I was writing about real environmental disasters in the Gulf on the home page, I thought about throwing overfishing and inept federal regulation into the pot. The Deepwater spill suggests that Gulf fisheries may face the “tragedy of the commons” under predominantly old-style seasonal limits, not more current schemes based on guaranteed shares of the overall catch.

Thanks to the spill, fishing was suspended for almost an entire season, and as the Dauphin Isand Sea Lab tentatively reported last fall, fish populations subsequently exploded across the board. That suggests more limitations on fishing could benefit fisheries.

But catch shares aren’t without cost. The reception of catch-share programs has been mixed, as have the results.

Federal property-rights-based fishing management in in Alaska, adopted under President Bush, works well. It has put an end to the craziness displayed in the first season of TV show Deadliest Catch, where crabbers raced a brief seasonal deadline to collect the delicious bottom dwellers that grace so many fine tables. The state of Alaska has a similar program for inland waters and coastal estuaries. Writes crabber Jim Stone:

The slower pace of crab-catch share fisheries has made them much safer. From 1991-2005, 26 vessels sank in the Bering Sea and 77 crabbers died – 50 times the U.S. worker fatality rate. Since 2005, there has been one death and no vessels have sunk. The slower pace also means we can soak our gear longer, and be more careful with handling and sorting the crab. Fewer pots are being used, meaning less impact on the sea floor and a doubling of crab caught per pot. This smaller, more efficient fleet has reduced our carbon footprint by 50 percent.

Contrast that to the more recent experience in New England under the Obama administration, where in 2010, hundreds of jobs and entire businesses were lost to a hamhanded catch-share program. The economic hardship wreaked last year by the first iteration of catch shares forced NOAA to modify its plans in ways that allow for more fish to be caught this year.

The controversy also inspired legislation that blocked NOAA from expanding the program to other areas, with such stalwart liberals as John Kerry joining Republicans in shutting down expansion of the program. Big Enviromentalism, including the Natural Resources Defense Council, generally supports catch shares, just as it does cap-and-trade.

There have been suggestions that these individual quotas don’t work particularly well. A study for the National Science Foundation by the Lensfest Ocean Program said that catches become more predictable, with less cheating and more attention to preserving so called “bycatch,” unwanted marine life (including turtles and dolphins) that are ensnared by nets. But by and large the programs don’t result in more fish, which is what’s needed to make fishermen happy.

In the Gulf, catch-share programs are just beginning — a few years back with red snapper, then in 2010 with grouper and tilefish. If the Dauphin island study can be duplicated this spring, then overfishing, not oil, may move front-and-center in Gulf restoration efforts.


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