Caught up in Catch Shares
Written by Ted Venker on 16 February 2011
Much has been made about the catch share issue in recent months. Catch shares are a poorly understood issue that has been made more complicated by an absolute avalanche of mistruths, half-truths, and outright lies swirling about it in fishing chatrooms and blogs across the country.
Almost every facet of the past, present and future of catch shares has been grossly distorted. A glance at the average chatroom would lead casual readers to believe that there is a vast, strange conspiracy linking all-powerful environmental groups with oil companies with “double-agents” posing as anglers to rid the world of fishermen. One recurring theme is that the goal is to empty the oceans of all people so the oil companies can pillage at will. Another, green theme says the goal is to empty the oceans of all people so that the fish and whales are left alone to prosper. There are long, fantastical charts linking this group to that group, to prove the conspiracy of anti-fishers exists. Everyone is on Pew’s payroll, or Environmental Defense’s or Exxon’s.
The only thing missing is a good 007 character to save the day.
None of it is true, but it makes good reading. And nothing spoils a good tale like a few cold facts, but in the interest of setting at least some of the record straight, this column attempts to splash a little reality on the catch share mystery.
- Catch share programs have been used sporadically in commercial fisheries for decades. They were created to address a fundamental problem in some commercial fisheries – too many boats chasing too few fish, resulting in dangerous, wasteful derbies. If you have ever watched the early seasons of Deadliest Catch on The Discovery Channel, that was a derby fishery. The whistle blew, all the boats went to catch king crab no matter what the weather was, no one slept and they fished until someone, somewhere, calculated the quota had been caught and then the season ended. Some made a fortune, some went broke, and everyone fished in a manner to catch as much as possible as fast as possible regardless of the danger or bycatch involved. The fact that no one sleeps for 4 or 5 days at a time is the reason it’s called Deadliest Catch.
- Staying with the Deadliest Catch theme, catch shares took the whole quota for king crab and divided it up among boats based on their past catch history. Each boat’s percentage effectively became “theirs” to harvest, however and whenever they liked during the season. The Northwestern, the Cornelia Marie, the Wizard, the Time Bandit and others all now “own” shares of the king crab fishery.
- The goal of catch shares in that scenario is to eliminate the derbies and reduce bycatch. A by-product of catch shares is that inevitably, some boats will sell out or lease their share to other boats. The overall number of boats drops, until a relatively few big boats are left fishing. Ideally, the dangerous derbies are eliminated, bycatch is reduced and the economics improve. That is the goal of a catch share system in a purely commercial fishery.
- Some environmental groups, Environmental Defense Fund foremost among them, became enamored, somewhat naively, with the prospects of applying catch shares to all fisheries, including recreational ones, based on their use, implementation and success in purely commercial fisheries. The critical disconnect is that no one at EDF understood or appreciated the vast differences between recreational fisheries and commercial fisheries. In EDF’s mind, catch shares were a solution to all fisheries problems.
Now, in order to set the stage for what comes next, you have to understand a separate but connected issue, and that is how allocations are set in mixed-use fisheries – fisheries that have both commercial and recreational participation. Allocations between recreational and commercial sectors have historically been based on catch history, often using time frames as short as selected three-year segments. Given federal managers’ history of promoting commercial fisheries, the time frames were often not favorable to the recreational sector.
Those allocations are essentially frozen, despite the growth of recreational angling and the growing economic contribution of the recreational sector. They are frozen because the reallocation process is a political nightmare for a Fishery Management Council. It is long, convoluted and tortuous, with lots of emotion thrown in for good measure. No Council member or staffer willingly endures it if he or she can possibly avoid it.
As a result, allocations that were set 20 or 30 years ago are completely out of whack with the demographics, population and public demand that exists today. When a stagnant recreational allocation combines with the constant migration to the nation’s coasts, the end result is that more and more recreational anglers are trapped chasing a fixed allotment of fish, resulting in shorter seasons and greater restrictions for everyone. The red snapper fishery in the Gulf of Mexico is a prime example. About 300 commercial boats currently chase 51 percent of the entire harvest of red snapper in the Gulf under a catch share system. Hundreds of thousands of recreational anglers get the other 49 percent.
And no one in NOAA Fisheries has been interested in cracking the egg on reallocation.
- Jumping back to catch shares, Dr. Jane Lubchenco was appointed to lead the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in 2008. Dr. Lubchenco is a marine scientist with deep ties to EDF, including a stint on its board.
- Not long after that appointment, the Obama Administration created the Catch Share Policy Task Force, signaling a new focus to broadly impose catch share systems on federal fisheries, including those enjoyed by recreational anglers. Compounding the complexity of this issue is the fact that the Obama Administration is filled with people from places like San Francisco and Chicago who do not exactly understand or appreciate saltwater recreational angling.
- Promoted by a former board member of EDF – which doesn’t understand or appreciate recreational angling – in an Administration that doesn’t understand or appreciate recreational angling, the danger of a Catch Shares Policy Task Force was immediately clear. There was NOTHING to prevent catch shares from proceeding as a one-size-fits-all solution for the commercial and recreational sectors in every fishery.
- A coalition of marine industry and fishery conservation groups, recognizing the need to become involved in the process of shaping the new policy, engaged the Administration on the issue of catch shares. At the same time, the coalition engaged with environmental groups that were heavily promoting catch share systems, including Environmental Defense Fund. The goal of that engagement was to educate them on the problems catch shares present for recreational anglers and shape the policy so that at the very least it was not detrimental to recreational angling.
- That engagement is the source of a lot of confusion on the Internet. In the eyes of some conspiracy-theorist bloggers, by engaging the Administration and the environmental community on catch shares, the angling groups involved (CCA, CCC, TBF, IGFA, ASA, NMMA) were somehow “negotiating with the Devil,” “selling anglers out,” “getting on the EDF payroll,” etc. That line of thinking completely ignores the consequences of non-engagement. An outcome driven by an EDF-driven Catch Share Policy Task Force, in an Administration that has no interest in recreational angling, could only be bad for sport fishermen. The belief that anyone can achieve a favorable outcome merely by turning their back on this issue and “just saying No” is pure political fantasy.
- The coalition created a list of points to pursue in discussions with the administration, most of which are now included in the NOAA Catch Share Policy released in late 2010, such as:
- The coalition is and always has been firmly against catch shares for recreational anglers. The coalition does not believe they are an appropriate tool to manage recreational anglers under any circumstances.
- The coalition is firmly against separating the recreational sector into for-hire/charter and private boat designations.
- In mixed-use fisheries, those that have a quota for both recreational and commercial fishers, it may be determined that catch shares are an appropriate tool for the commercial sector. However, before implementing a commercial catch share system, the allocation must be redefined and updated using economic, social and conservation criteria.
- Once set, the new allocation must be reviewed periodically using those same criteria.
- In mixed-use fisheries that employ a catch share system for the commercial sector, the commercial shares must be made available for transfer to the recreational sector to allow for the growth of the recreational sector. The mechanism for transferring commercial shares could include state agencies, but is as yet undefined.
- The coalition’s engagement effectively changed the Catch Share Policy from one that was initially poised to work against recreational anglers, to a tool that may be used to address the persistent allocation problems that have short-changed anglers for decades. Would this be the case if the coalition had not engaged? Absolutely not. We would certainly have a catch share policy, but there would be very little in it that might work FOR anglers.
- Ideally, applying the current catch share policy in the Gulf of Mexico for red snapper, for example, could result in a 70% or 80% recreational share, with the potential to shift more commercial quota to the recreational side if economic, conservation and social factors determine it is warranted. Unfortunately, the policy does not apply to Gulf red snapper since a catch share system was implemented for that fishery in 2006. The outdated allocation for Gulf red snapper remains a stubborn problem seeking a solution. However, CCA is currently pursuing reallocation and transferability of commercial red snapper shares at the Gulf Council.
The coalition of groups that engaged with the Administration and the environmental community on catch shares stepped in to prevent a disaster for recreational anglers. Perhaps that is not as interesting as a good spy novel, full of intrigue, deception and betrayal, but this is not some daytime soap opera. This is a real-life fisheries debate, with real political consequences that must be confronted and dealt with.
When it comes to the Internet, it is good to remember that often the simplest explanation is correct. If it starts to sound like something Ian Fleming wrote, then maybe it has been written for entertainment purposes only. In fact, you should be suspicious of everything you read in chatrooms and online forums, which means you should even take this article with a grain of salt. At the very least, go see the complete text of CCA’s documents and testimony before Congress and letters to the Administration, and check out information about our lawsuit against the federal government and Environmental Defense Fund over the Gulf grouper
catch share program. It’s all on the Catch Shares
page in the Newsroom section of www.JoinCCA.org
. Do some research and, by all means, decide for yourself.