Saving Fish and America's Fishermen

Dec 18, 2003 | Richard G. Newell, James N. Sanchirico

The Providence Journal
Thursday, December 18, 2003

Passenger pigeons were once the most numerous bird in North America -- more numerous than all the other birds combined. Buffalo by the hundreds of thousands once roamed the Great Plains -- herds that stretched as far as the eye could see.

The passenger pigeon is extinct, a victim of overhunting. The buffalo is now a protected species, its number a tiny fraction of what it once was -- a victim of over-zealous hunters.

It may sound incredible but we now face the same prospect with the ocean's wild fish. The fisheries off the United States -- especially New England -- are severely depleted.

To save and perhaps replenish the fishing stock, the New England Fishery Management Council (with approval from the National Marine Fisheries Service, the federal fishing regulator) has been trying to restrict the commercial-fishing catch. But its approach -- restricting the number of days and times of year fishermen may take their boats out; the kind of gear they may use; and the areas where they may fish -- has not worked.

So now, faced with an ever-dwindling supply -- evidenced by half- or near-empty fishing boats -- the New England council is preparing to further limit the number of fishing days. But this is not the way to go.

Limiting the number of days a fisherman may go out, but not the number of fish caught, only encourages fishermen to work faster -- diminishing the supply of fish, as well as general safety. We can now foresee cod, haddock, and yellowtail flounder's being commercially extinct, just as Atlantic halibut has been for 150 years.

There is a better, though not painless, way to replenish the fishing stock and save the U.S. fishing industry: individual fishing quotas (IFQs). These quotas allow fishermen to work and the fish population to sustain itself.

IFQ programs set a total allowable catch and then assign quotas to individual fishermen. The more efficient a fisherman, the more cheaply he can catch his quota. Less efficient fishermen may sell their quotas to others.

This system has been successful in New Zealand and with a few fish stocks in U.S. waters. In the 17 years of New Zealand's IFQ program -- which covers more than 85 percent of its commercial fisheries -- overfishing has been dramatically reduced; quota values have significantly risen; and many fish stocks are on the way to recovery. Alaska has similarly succeeded with IFQ programs for halibut and sablefish.

But the IFQ system is not easy -- almost no one gets as large a quota as he or she wants. (This is why some fishermen decide to sell their quotas.) Nevertheless, if properly managed - - which means carefully establishing the total allowable catch for each species; effectively monitoring the catches; and limiting the quota shares that fishermen may control -- an IFQ program can result in enough fish for consumption. It protects fish from extinction and lets the fishing industry survive and possibly thrive.

Two bills before Congress would establish national standards for IFQs. Separate legislation, in the form of an appropriations-bill rider sponsored by Sen. Ted Stevens (R.-Alaska), would establish a "two-pie" system, giving both fishermen and fish processors quotas in the Alaskan crab fishery.

If these bills pass, we can foresee a difficult period when the fishing industry haggles over quota shares, appeals decisions, and seeks redress. A mechanism would therefore be needed to ensure the smoothest, fairest transition. Retraining programs or compensation could be offered to those who give up fishing.

Many New England fishermen oppose IFQs. But given the failure of the current approach and the success of IFQ systems elsewhere, such a change in course seems called for.

We must face harsh facts. As in other industries, technology has made individual fishermen more productive than they were 40 or 50 years ago. We simply don't need as many fishermen today as before to meet the demand.  

More important, if we don't limit the catch, there will come a time in the not-too-distant future when virtually all fishermen will be out of work -- because there simply won't be fish for them to catch.


Richard Newell and James Sanchirico are fellows at Resources for the Future, an institution that studies environmental and economic issues. Dr. Sanchirico is also a visiting scholar at the Center for Environmental Science and Policy, at Stanford University.