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.
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.
The new sectors are designed to address these problems – to halt overfishing and rebuild fish stocks.
So here's a question: Who cares? Does any of this really matter to anyone besides fishermen?
Here are some highlights from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization's most recent assessment of world fisheries:
• Fisheries supply at least 15 percent of the animal protein consumed by humans.
• They provide direct or indirect employment for nearly 200 million people worldwide.
• They generate $85 billion (US) annually.
• 28 percent of the world's fisheries stocks are currently being overexploited or have collapsed.
• 52 percent are fully exploited.
But here's the bigger issue: How fisheries are managed is a nice litmus test for how we're faring as we confront a larger question. Can we learn – and what does it take – to manage natural systems sustainably?
Historically, we've gotten so-called ecosystem services (like fish) for free. We pay nothing except for the cost of harvesting them. That holds true for myriad services – clean water flowing from healthy, intact ecosystems; wood from forests; carbon stored in wetlands; and so on.
But if we degrade ecosystems, we have to assume the cost of delivering that service. We end up paying for what we once got free. That's what a fish farm is. That's also why New York City labors so diligently to protect its forested watershed. Imagine having to do all that forest does to New York's water – clean, filter, purify – ourselves. (And we do do some of it.)
Here's an idea of what we lose just with fisheries. The World Bank's Sunken Billions report estimates that the world has loses $50 billion yearly in potential profit to fishery mismanagement. Over the past three decades, that's $2 trillion lost to world Gross Domestic Product.
So we can look at fishery management as a small case – and it's really not that small considering that oceans cover 70 percent of the planet – of the greater sustainability question.
One more analogy to belabor this point: Scientists often characterize sustainability as learning to live off the biosphere's interest without digging into its principal. If we cut into the principal, yes, we can live like kings for a while. But eventually, we spend it all. When that happens, not only do dividend payments stopped, it may be impossible, at least on time scales humans care about, to reaccumulate the principal and reestablish the trust fund.