How Alaska keeps its seas from being overfished

Sound science and a 'catch share' system are key.

Apocalyptic predictions have not been entirely relegated to Wall Street these days. We've become quite used to them when it comes to our seas. In 2006, a major report warned that the world's fisheries would completely collapse by 2048 if current fishing (and polluting) practices continue. Like the panic on Wall Street, such predictions cause great anxiety about the state of our world's oceans.

I've frankly been skeptical of alarmist predictions of a worldwide fishery collapse, mainly because here in Alaska, where more than half of America's fish are caught, we've applied a rigorous science-based system that balances the interests of both industry and conservation. As a result, we have no overfished stocks, and we've protected the marine habitat. If we can do it, surely others can as well.

But our model of self-policing – which involves setting strict quotas and sticking to them, as well as including all stakeholders at the decisionmaking table – isn't applied everywhere, and currently far too many of our world's fisheries are nearing collapse due to fundamental mismanagement.

A new study published recently in the journal Science suggested that a fishery can be saved by giving those who harvest the sea a guaranteed share of its bounty, rather than having them compete to see who can extract the most the fastest.

The authors surveyed 121 fisheries worldwide where individuals receive a predetermined portion of a fishery's catch limit and found that they were half as likely to have collapsed as those without a "catch share" system.

In addition, the researchers found that when a fishery that had relied on traditional methods – such as seasonal limits or overall catch restrictions – was converted to using catch shares, the change did not just slow the fishery's decline; it stopped it.

Quota share systems are an important tool to conserve fish stocks. But other steps are equally important – steps such as following scientific recommendations for catch limits, catch monitoring, setting aside fish habitat, and protecting forage fish.

In Alaska, where more than half the nation's seafood is landed – over 5 billion pounds annually – we incorporate all of these steps into management plans, and as a result none of our groundfish stocks are considered overfished.

Due to a unique, disciplined system of science-based catch limits and enforcement by forward-looking fishermen, Alaska/North Pacific fisheries have an astounding 30-year record for sustainable fishing, and were recently cited by National Geographic as being one of only three well-managed fisheries in the world (Iceland and New Zealand were the other two).

All our major salmon, halibut, and pollock fisheries are certified as sustainable and operate under a quota share system or other form of access limitation. Catch limits are set by scientists, harvests are closely monitored, and quotas adhered to. Wide swaths of undersea areas have been set aside to protect needed habitat. Fishery managers incorporate broader ecosystem concerns into their plans such as protection for forage fish.

And all of these actions have been supported by the majority of Alaska's seafood industry. We believe that this kind of leadership from an industry that provides more than half the fish in America can serve as a good example for the nation on how to promote both conservation and healthy fishing communities.

Fishing is a tradition in America. The history and future of fishing communities are bound up in the ability to fish. The sustainability of the seas and the sustainability of fishing communities are inextricable, and we know from Alaska's experience that a multipronged public process, informed by good science, can show the way forward.

David Benton is a former chairman of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council. He currently serves as executive director of the Juneau, Alaska-based Marine Conservation Alliance, which comprises fishermen, seafood processors, and communities involved in the groundfish and crab fisheries off Alaska.

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