June 25, 2002
Individual Fishing Quotas:
By Donald R. Leal
BOZEMAN, Mont. - There's no doubt that U. S. coastal fisheries are in trouble.
Wild stocks from Alaska crab to New England groundfish have been severely overfished. Just last week, the Pacific Fisheries Management Council announced it will prohibit fishing in major sectors of the groundfish fishery along the Pacific Coast.
The fisheries' collapse has been expensive for taxpayers, too: Since 1994, taxpayers have spent more than $160 million to assist New England fishermen, and hundreds of millions more dollars can be expected to be spent elsewhere.
Now Congress is being given the opportunity to address not only depleted fisheries and fishing overcapacity, but falling income of fishermen as well. A bill to be considered Wednesday by the House Resources Committee offers an opportunity for Congress to save endangered fishing grounds, restore livelihoods and provide more food for the world.
Traditional regulation takes such forms as shortening seasons and limiting the amount of fish caught per fishing trip. But these regulations frequently don't work, because fishermen react in very human ways.
If the season is shortened, they purchase bigger, faster boats to catch the same amount of fish in a shorter time. The result is a wild race for fish as boats go out whatever the weather, resulting in accidents, lost boats, tangled gear and wasted fish. If the catch is limited per fishing trip, fishermen are apt to discard more in search of higher-quality fish, resulting in unreported fish mortality. And because of the short seasons, consumers must rely on processed or frozen fish rather than fresh fish, and revenues for the fishermen go down.
What's being proposed is expanding individual fishing quotas, or IFQs, which can end this destructive race. Where these quotas have been adopted around the world -- from halibut in Alaska to the snapper in New Zealand -- they have transformed fishing.
These quotas give each fisherman a right to a specified amount of the total allowable catch. The fisherman can take time to obtain the catch, so the frantic and devastating race ends. If the fisherman wants to get out of fishing, the individual quota can be sold to someone else.
In Alaska, for example, the halibut season had fallen to two or three days a year, and fishermen were hammered by lower prices because of the glut of halibut caught during that time. Halibut was wasted due to lost or abandoned gear and incomplete processing on vessels. Fishing was hazardous and the environmental goals weren't being met, anyway; the sustainable catch level sought by managers was often exceeded.
After IFQs were adopted in 1995, the halibut season was extended to 245 days a year. Fishermen received higher prices because they could deliver fresh halibut through much of the year. Less gear was lost, and fishing was safer. And harvests no longer exceeded managers' goals.
However, special interests obtained a four-year moratorium, since extended, on IFQs. Some major processing companies want the moratorium because they fear losing their capital investments the capacity to process huge fish gluts. Skippers and crews with a long history of fishing are worried about being left out when IFQs are initially allocated.
But these are concerns that can be addressed without a draconian moratorium. The bill coming up this week, HR 4749 by Rep. Wayne Gilchrest, R-Md., calls for fisheries managers to do just that.
Some people also worry that individual quotas will lead to privatization of fisheries. Such a prospect is a long way off, however. With IFQs, government managers still command important roles in monitoring and enforcing IFQs and assessing the health of fish stocks.
Surely, anyone who looks at the evidence, as the National Research Council did in backing IFQs, must agree that the old, wide-open style of fishing with regulations has been a failure. Individual fishing quotas can solve overfishing and other problems in many ocean fisheries where regulation has failed. Donald R. Leal is a senior associate of the Political Economy Research Center in Bozeman, Mont., which explores market solutions to environmental problems.
Donald R. Leal is a Senior Associate of PERC â?? the Center for Free Market Environmentalism â?? in Bozeman, Montana. He is author of Fencing the Fishery: A Primer on Ending the Race for Fish, a new book published by PERC.