Getting your share


Lisa Duchene, SeafoodSource contributing editor

Published on
July 19, 2009

 Does your sustainable seafood purchasing policy address "catch shares?"

Maybe it should.

The catch-share approach - popular in New Zealand, Australia and Iceland - is gaining favor as an effective way to sustainably manage fisheries.

If you're buying Alaskan halibut, you're already buying fish managed by catch shares. Since 1995, the Alaska halibut fishery has been managed under an individual transferable quota (ITQ) system, one form of catch shares.

Under a catch-share system, fishermen or companies hold a share that guarantees them a fixed portion of a fishery's total allowable catch, set each year by scientists. Every shareholder then has a stake in the long-term health of the fishery. And if the rules include limits on bycatch, there is a financial incentive to innovate and develop more selective gear.

"[Catch shares] stop the race-to-fish," said Ray Hilborn, a fisheries professor at the University of Washington, "and provide incentives for fishermen to reduce costs, improve recovery rates and improve quality rather than racing other fishermen to catch fish."

Catch shares represent a fundamental change from an open-access system. The so-called "tragedy of the commons" is that with open access to a natural resource, the financial payoff lies in exploiting instead of conserving.

A paper published in Science in September 2008 by University of California-Santa Barbara researchers Christopher Costello, Steven Gaines and John Lynham said the catch-shares approach "halts and even reverses the global trend toward widespread collapse. Institutional change has the potential for greatly altering the future of global fisheries." Costello and his colleagues studied catch statistics of 11,135 fisheries from 1950 to 2003. One-third of open-access fisheries have collapsed while fewer ? half that number ? have collapsed under a catch-share system.

An ad hoc group of 23 conservation scientists and policymakers highlighted catch shares as a solution to fisheries declines in the late 2008 report "Oceans of Abundance." They urged U.S. fisheries policymakers to evaluate all U.S. fishery management plans for catch shares by 2012. Half the plans should feature catch-share management by 2016, said the group.

In late June, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said transitioning U.S. fisheries to catch shares is a priority and appointed a "catch-share task force" to evaluate use of catch shares in U.S. fisheries.

"Catch shares are not a panacea for all fisheries," said a 2 July status report from task force chairperson Monica Medina, special advisor to NOAA Administrator Dr. Jane Lubchenco. "In appropriate fisheries, however, they can be a key tool in achieving sustainable fisheries and ensuring ecosystem health and resilience."

But you're unlikely to find the term in most sustainable-seafood purchasing policies, said one large-volume seafood buyer. Most policies require a review of a fishery's management and catch shares. If properly setup, they are a sign of sound management, added the buyer.

The downside is if the total catch is set too high or the shares are unfairly allocated, for example, to big corporations, squeezing out individual fishermen. Otherwise, said the buyer, catch shares "make a lot of sense."

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