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Mixing socialist and capitalist approaches to fishery management

By Moises Velasquez-Manoff / June 30, 2009

Fishing boats at Provincetown, Cape Cod, Mass.

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Last week, the New England Fishery Management Council approved 19 community-based sectors to be run by fishermen. In New England, 12 of the 19 ground fish stocks – bottom-dwelling fish such as cod and haddock – are overfished. Sectors are supposed to help end the overfishing.

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Sectors are a kind of catch-share system. That means fishermen get a percentage of the year's total allowable catch (TAC). If scientists set the TAC at 100 tons, say, and you own 10 percent, you can catch 10 tons that year. But in sectors, that allotment – the 10 percent – goes to a group rather than an individual. The group then breaks it up among members.

The National Marine Fisheries Service has yet to approve the sectors, and the proposed sectors, which would go live in 2010, are voluntary. (The Magnuson-Stevens Act says overfishing must end by 2010.) Beginning in 2012, boats that choose to remain outside the sectors will also operate under total allowable catch, to keep things fair.

Here's what's so interesting about the sector idea: It mixes socialist and capitalist approaches to fishery management. The fishermen now "own" a share of the sea, a solidly corporate proposition. That theoretically is an incentive for stewardship. If fishermen can tread lightly and fish in ways that continue to grow the stock, that 10 percent allocation will be worth more fish next year. Greed, or at least self-interest, becomes the impetus for conservation.

In studies, catch-share systems have proven effective at halting, and even reversing, overfishing. Indeed, the most successfully managed fisheries – in New Zealand, Alaska, and Iceland, among others – operate on catch-share systems. The key components are hard caps on what can be caught and tradable fishing privileges to catch those fish.

But here's what's slightly socialist about sectors. They're kind of cooperatives. That's new for fishermen in New England, most of whom are accustomed to going it alone.

Still, it's a significant step. For New England, probably the United States' most contentious fishing council – 400 years of fishing history (and baggage), longer than any other US region – the proposed sectors are a radical departure from the "days at sea" management system.

In that plan, fishermen can fish only on certain days. So they raced to fish, not taking care to tread lightly. They could haul in only a certain number of fish per trip. On days when they caught more, they discarded (wasted) the excess. By most accounts, these so-called indirect controls didn't work very well for fish or fishermen.

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