A better way to prevent overfishing

Instead of risky shorter seasons, a shared catch-limit allows fishermen to work whenever they want. Today, more than half of all seafood caught in US waters is in 'catch-shares' management. That’s good for both fisheries and fishermen and their communities.

Robert Visser/Greenpeace/Reuters/file
Greenpeace activists hold a banner in front of an American Seafoods factory trawler calling for it to stop overfishing for pollock in the Bering Sea off Alaska on Sept. 9, 1996. Since then, a fishery management method known as 'catch share' has led to the comeback of the Alaskan pollock, which happens to be the fish of choice for McDonald’s Filet-o-Fish sandwich, writes op-ed contributor Matt Rand.

Some reports make startling predictions about overfishing and the collapse of ocean life. Fishermen, local fishing communities, and conservation groups like ours are working to identify and implement fishery management tools to head off these tragic forecasts.

Some tools are proving to be better than others.

Over the past few decades, the primary strategy has been to reduce the amount of fish that can be caught and to cut the duration of fishing seasons. The idea behind this approach is simple and admirable – but at times the method has been inadequate to the task.

True, shortening seasons can reduce overall pressure on stock. But history has shown that limited seasons are not always a long-term conservation solution – and cause problems for fishermen and fishing communities.

While the fishing season is closed, fishermen can’t earn a living. And shorter seasons can lead to a “race to fish.” Fishermen try to catch as many fish as they can as quickly as possible. That risks unintentional overfishing, venturing out in dangerous weather, and tossing back fish – often dead – due to various rules.

A “fishing derby” also produces a market glut, with every boat bringing in its catch at the same time, depressing prices.

But the past decade or so has brought real progress using new and innovative management tools.

One of those approaches, called “catch shares,” uses a total allowable catch for a species based on numbers that scientists believe allow the fishery to recover. Fishermen are allotted a share of that catch, and they can harvest their share whenever they want.

There’s no rush to fish in an attempt to outcompete and no need to go fishing in dangerous weather. Constantly changing fishing seasons are replaced by a predictability that encourages fishermen to commit to sustainability. Compliance with fishing limits increases significantly, and there’s a dramatic drop in the amount of unwanted fish that is tossed overboard.

This approach has helped spark a turnaround for many kinds of fish: red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico, Virginia striped bass, mid-Atlantic golden tilefish, Pacific pollock, whiting and petrale sole, Alaska king crab, and Alaskan pollock – the fish of choice for McDonald’s Filet-o-Fish sandwich.

More and more fisheries in US and international waters are managed with this approach. Today, more than half of all seafood caught in US waters is in catch-share management. That’s good for fisheries and good for fishermen.

Matt Rand is senior director of campaigns for the Environmental Defense Fund’s Oceans Program.

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