North American Marine Alliance travels to Washington DC to demand catch-share reform

Published on
May 9, 2023
U.S. fishermen meet with a staff member from the office of U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski.

U.S. fishermen who work in New England, Alaska, the South Atlantic, and the Gulf of Mexico traveled to Washington D.C. from 6 to 9 February, 2023, to call for reform of current catch-share programs through the Magnuson-Stevens Act – a revision of which is currently being negotiated by the U.S. Congress.

Catch shares, or limited-access fisheries, are management strategies that assign a proportion of a total allowable catch or quota to a shareholder who then has permission to harvest that amount. There are 17 catch-share programs in the U.S. regulating major fisheries, such as red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico, pollock in Alaska, and scallops in New England.

“A big company can have a bunch of fishing rights, and they will lease out these rights so the fishermen have to pay rent to them. Basically, it creates a landlord-type situation,” North American Marine Alliance (NAMA) Media Coordinator Feini Yin said. “It disconnects access to the fishing rights themselves from the people who are actually out on the water and risking their lives on the boats.”

The NAMA fishermen who traveled to Washington D.C., called for an immediate moratorium to block the creation of new catch-share programs and for the implementation of safeguards for existing catch-share systems. In addition, they asked for rules to create more transparency in catch-share ownership and leasing data to make it easier to find out who owns the quota.

Quota assignment often depends on the historical participation of a shareholder for a historical time period. Once assigned, it becomes an “open market” where quota-holders can sell, trade, or lease to the highest bidders.

Though catch shares have been found to be effective at reducing overfishing, they can harm the social, economic, and ecological components of a fishery by privatizing the right to fish. According to NAMA, the privatization of fishing quotas reduce operations with the smallest ecological footprints – the small- to medium-scale community-based fisheries – due to the prohibitive cost of fishing rights.

“Because the catch-share programs are privatizing the rights to fish and turning fishing rights into a tradable commodity, that really opens the door for private investors, private equity firms, and big corporations to come in and buy up fishing rights,” Yin said. “It kind of turns fisheries into a stock market.”

The current system of catch shares enables wealthy investors to amass fishing rights and then rent those out at prohibitively expensive rates, according to Yin. This also prevents new entrants and younger generations of fishers from entering the trade.

“These fishing rights are so expensive and the margins so narrow that it makes their livelihoods really sort of untenable. It’s had an effect of displacing a lot of community-based, small-scale fishing folks … and prohibiting younger new entrants from coming into fisheries,” Yin said. “There used to be this dream of starting out as a deckhand, gradually working your way up to owning a boat, and then maybe your own little fleet. That really doesn't happen anymore because people can't advance. They're held under the thumb of these prohibitive costs of leasing quota.”

The privatization of fishing rights also allows foreign entities that do not physically participate in the U.S. fishing industry to buy quotas and lease them to U.S. fishermen in the area. One high-profile example is ... 

Photo courtesy of North American Marine Alliance

Contributing editor reporting from Hawaii, U.S.A.

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