Slowing the Race to Fish and the Rush to Judgment on Rights-Based Management


In the early 1990s, the Pacific halibut derby was madness. At high noon on the opening day of the season, thousands of boats would race each other out of Alaskan harbors and into battle on the high seas, pursuing the promise of fortune.

Danger and uncertainty did nothing to deter this frenzy; year after year fishermen would compete against each other, the elements, and time to secure as much of the catch for themselves as they could before the season closed. Jockeying for position amid the cold, wind, and waves of the Gulf of Alaska, they dropped as many lines as their crews could handle and filled their holds to the brim with the prized fish.

The whole thing was over in a matter of days. For the winners of this “race to fish,” the halibut derby offered the riches of a gold rush. For those left behind, there was little to show for the sleepless nights except a lighter wallet and the scars of battle.

With each passing year, the race lured in more fishermen, vessels, and gear. To ensure that catch limits were not exceeded and stock was preserved for future harvests, managers responded by making the season shorter and shorter—down to as little as 24 hours.

While Alaskan halibut might be the most extreme case, it is hardly unique. Caught in this same cycle of stock declines, shrinking seasons, and over-investment in fishing capital, managers in many fisheries across the country have decided to give another approach—catch shares—a try.

For those unfamiliar with the term, “catch shares” refers to a style of management in which a total yearly allowable catch is set for the whole fishery and then divided up among vessels, individuals, or groups of fishermen in the form of quotas—in essence, cap-and-trade for fish. Each fisherman or captain can then decide when and how to catch their allotted proportion. By contrast, traditional management schemes do not directly limit individuals’ harvests and instead close the season when the yearly allowable catch is reached in aggregate. Individual fishermen or vessels have no guaranteed share and therefore must compete to maximize their harvest before the fishery is shut down for the season.

Yet, despite a nearly 30-year presence in the United States and the lack of widely successful alternatives, catch shares remain controversial. Advocates argue that, by giving fishermen a secure right to some quantity of fish that they can catch whenever they want, catch shares end the race to fish, thus promoting economic efficiencyimproving safety, and providing consumers with a more consistent supply of fresh seafood. Detractors say catch shares concentrate quota in the hands of corporations at the expense of small-scale fishermen, while doing nothing to protect stocks.

Existing regulations grant regional fishery management councils considerable flexibility to implement new catch share programs. The nation’s primary federal fisheries legislation, The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, lays out certain key criteria, including consideration of community impacts and measures to prevent participants from obtaining “excessive” shares. The law also requires that managers in two regions, New England and the Gulf of Mexico, obtain the approval of two-thirds of eligible permit holders—a substantial hurdle—before enacting a quota system. However, the Act defines catch share programs somewhat narrowly, and programs that allocate quota to self-organized groups of fishermen rather than to individuals (e.g., the Northeast Multispecies Sector Program) need not meet this requirement. Since 1990, 16 programs covering over a third of the U.S. catch have been implemented, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) continues to support “the consideration and adoption of catch shares wherever appropriate […].”

But now, as the Magnuson-Stevens Act faces reauthorization, the future of catch shares is at stake.

In June 2015, the House of Representatives passed a Republican-sponsored bill expanding the definition of quota programs to include sectors/groups and containing language that would explicitly prohibit managers from implementing new quota programs without first gaining approval from a majority of permit-holders in a referendum. This new requirement would severely hinder managers’ ability to implement new catch share programs going forward. While that bill expired with the end of the last congressional term, an identical bill was reintroduced in February of this year.

“The passionate opposition these bills have ignited among conservation groups, regional managers, and even some fishermen’s associations therefore cannot be attributed solely to their proposed actions on catch shares.”

Muddying the political waters is the fact that this proposed legislation also seeks to postpone stock rebuilding deadlines, loosen annual catch limits, weaken accountability measures, and inhibit the role of science-based measures in management decisions. The passionate opposition these bills have ignited among conservation groups, regional managers, and even some fishermen’s associations therefore cannot be attributed solely to their proposed actions on catch shares.

The debate is echoed in state legislative chambers, revealing divisions along regional as well as partisan fault lines. Earlier this year, the South Carolina House of Representatives adopted a resolution put forth by five Republicans and one Democrat to oppose “the privatization of South Atlantic federal fishery resources through catch share management,” and three Republicans in the North Carolina General Assembly have introduced a nearly identical motion. These documents stress the importance of commercial fishing to their local economies and cite the usual arguments—fishing industry job losses, quota and fleet consolidation, and lack of biological benefit to stocks in areas with catch shares—as the primary motives for this opposition.

But the job loss/industry exit figures cited in these resolutions may unfairly blame catch shares for outcomes that either would have occurred anyway due to stock declines or are more realistically attributable to concurrent policy changes, like reductions in the total allowable catch. Furthermore, if catch shares do lengthen fishing seasons and increase fishing revenues as hypothesized, fishing-related employment can actually become more stable and profitable throughout the year than it was previously.

Clearly there are a great many questions contained within this debate, and catch shares have been around long enough that we can look to the available evidence on their performance for answers.

My new research, with Duke University co-authors David Kaczan and Martin Smith, addresses just one of these questions, but an important one: do catch shares really slow the race to fish, as claimed by their proponents?

In a paper recently published in the journal Nature, we tackle this question by comparing every U.S. catch share fishery with monthly data to a similar fishery that did not implement catch shares at the same time. We measure differences in how the distribution of the harvest changed over time between these “treated” and “control” fisheries to obtain the effect of catch shares on season lengths for each individual treated fishery. We then take averages across these individual fishery effects to find the overall effect of catch shares across U.S. fisheries.

Our answer to this simple but important question is a clear “yes”: catch shares generally do slow the race to fish. The time taken to bring in 80 percent of a fishery’s total catch extends by about one month on average, and this likely contributes to improved safety, lower costs, and avoidance of market gluts that depress revenues and limit access to fresh seafood. No matter how you slice it, these are all good things.

But this is a view of catch shares from fifty thousand feet, and there are important caveats to keep in mind.

One is that our average result masks important variation in how different fisheries respond to catch shares. Among our 39 treated fisheries, we expected that some would not experience appreciable slowing of the race (for example, those whose seasons had previously taken the form of multiple mini-derbies rather than one big one). But to our surprise, we also found a handful of cases where seasons became morecompressed after the implementation of catch shares. Why would this happen?

We noticed that anomalies tended to be lower-priced products in multispecies fisheries, suggesting that fishermen may speed up their catch of some species to leave time for more careful pursuit of other, higher value species for which they also have quota. So, while seasons extended on average, that effect was not uniform across all individual species.

“Economic efficiency is important, but so are equity and fairness, especially if the goal is to strengthen communities made up of small businesses and individuals whose livelihoods depend on access to these resources.”

The tradeoffs fishermen face in making targeting and timing decisions within multispecies or mixed-management contexts are extremely complex. Changing how they harvest one species has implications for the harvest of another species, and the effects of catch shares on harvest patterns and economic outcomes for fishermen are the subjects of ongoing research. With financial support from the National Marine Fisheries Service and Sea Grant, I’m working to understand these effects using the New England groundfish complex—a group of fisheries which switched to catch shares in 2010—as a case study. The goal of this work is to better predict the outcomes of catch shares and other policies on fishery participation, harvesting decisions, and revenues so that managers can use this information to improve policy design. Ultimately, maximizing the value generated from the resource—i.e., getting more money from the same fish—will help to strengthen fishing communities and improve their resilience to future economic downturns or other shocks.

A closely related and critical question is how these revenues are distributed under catch shares. Economic efficiency is important, but so are equity and fairness, especially if the goal is to strengthen communities made up of small businesses and individuals whose livelihoods depend on access to these resources. Do these policies promote corporate empires at the expense of family or local operations? One needn’t look any further than the latest headlines on “Codfather” Carlos Rafael to see that concerns regarding consolidation and corruption are well founded.

As researchers continue to study the costs and benefits of catch shares, we should keep these considerations in mind. But instead of causing us to scuttle the idea of catch shares altogether, they should remind us that careful policy design is key to the success of any management tool. Not all catch share programs are created equal. For example, the Pacific groundfish program limits individual quota holdings to prevent the sort of consolidation that occurred in New England. Similarly, the Régimen Federal de Pesca in Argentina only allows the sale of quota from large to small vessels, not vice-versa. Research on how well these types of program features achieve social and economic aims is presently underway.

Despite the divergent views outlined above, there’s one thing we should all agree on: the future of catch shares should be determined by evidence of their performance, good or bad. In establishing that catch shares do slow the race to fish on average, my colleagues and I have provided one piece of the puzzle, which we hope—along with the input of other researchers and stakeholders—will make the big picture clearer and illuminate the path forward.

Anna Birkenbach is a fourth-year PhD student in the University Program in Environmental Policy economics track. Her research explores how rights-based fisheries management affects various outcomes, including fishermen’s targeting/timing decisions and resulting revenues.

Special thanks to Martin Smith and David Kaczan for their comments on earlier drafts of this article.