ELLSWORTH — Share and share alike?
Fisheries regulators are hoping that, with the concept behind that traditional phrase, fishermen might be able to improve the long-term outlook for commercial fish stocks that have seen their numbers dwindle over the past few decades.
On Thursday, the federal National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration released a draft national policy that encourages fishermen to pursue a general management concept known as “catch shares” in determining how they catch fish. Under share systems, which can have several variations, individuals or various groups are allocated a certain amount under the overall quota, based on their historical participation in the fishery.
Traditionally, regulators have set an overall quota for how much of a species can be caught but have not subdivided that quota among the fishermen targeting that species. As a result, fishermen have competed to see who can fill up their boats the fastest before the overall quota is reached, NOAA officials indicated Thursday in a prepared statement.
This has resulted in more boats and gear being in the water than necessary, shorter fishing seasons, unsafe fishing, high bycatch levels, and quotas being exceeded in the rush to catch fish before the quotas are met, NOAA officials said. On the market side, it also may have resulted in too much fish hitting the docks at the same time, reducing the value of the catch.
With some sort of catch share system, fishermen would work together to determine how to meet the mandated limits rather than having those mechanisms set by regulators, according to Jane Lubchenco, NOAA’s top administrator. Shares could be held by individual fishermen, boat owners, companies or even communities, depending on what NOAA’s regional fishery councils decide, she said Thursday.
“The emphasis of catch shares is on local design and local implementation,” Lubchenco said during a conference call with reporters. “The devil is in the design, and the benefit is in the design.”
For example, participants in a particular fishery could decide what the maximum size for a single share in that fishery would be or to what extent those shares could be traded or consolidated, if at all, according to NOAA officials. They could decide how to best transition from an existing quota system to a new catch share pro-gram.
If effective in rebuilding fish stocks, catch share systems eventually could help boost the value of commercial fish landings by more than $2 billion nationwide, Lubchenco said. The nationwide value of annual commercial fish landings is now $4.1 billion.
Pew Environment Group released a statement Thursday praising NOAA for encouraging fishermen to consider using catch shares in managing fisheries.
“[Catch shares] have been praised as a way of achieving sustainable fish populations by giving fishermen an incentive to conserve the resource,” Lee Crockett, the group’s director of federal fisheries policy, indicated in a written statement.
Well-designed catch shares can boost economic efficiency, Crockett indicated, but if poorly designed they can cause unintentional economic hardship for fishermen and fishing communities.
Glen Libby of the Port Clyde-based Midcoast Fishermen’s Association said Thursday that encouraging fishermen to adopt some sort of catch share system for some fisheries is not a bad idea, given the state of fish regulation now.
Some species have bounced back and others haven’t, he said. What hasn’t worked well for fishermen, he added, is the quota system that severely restricts the number of days at sea they can spend fishing.
“Most of the quotas are too small,” Libby said. “We have to have something. I know I hate what we have now.”
One variation of the catch share system that Libby said he supports is a sector system, in which a group of fishermen agree to observe certain limits for their group but can decide for themselves how they reach them. This would be different from a catch share system in which fishermen simply have to observe their own personal catch limits.
Libby said that with sectors, fishermen in a sector are given some autonomy to determine from time to time who will fish for what and when they will do it.
“Personally, I think [a sector system] will be better for Port Clyde,” Libby said. “We’ll be able to trade [shares] among ourselves. You have to decide on it as a group.”
Libby said catch share systems, be it a sector program or something else, likely won’t work well for everybody or every fishery. But it could be a good option for fishermen who are unhappy with the way they are regulated now.
“It’s going to take some work,” he said. “If you’ve got a better idea, let’s hear it, but if you don’t, this is probably the best idea we’ve got right now.”
The draft policy may be read online at www.nmfs.noaa.gov/sfa/domes_fish/catchshare/index.htm. Public comment on the draft policy will be accepted until April 10, 2010.