Debate over catch shares heats up


Steven Hedlund

Published on
August 25, 2009

The debate over catch shares among New Bedford, Mass., fishermen is heating up on the U.S. East Coast.

On Tuesday, several New Bedford fishermen organized a rally off Martha’s Vineyard, where President Barack Obama is vacationing, to voice their opposition to catch-share programs. The fishermen passed through the harbors of Vineyard Haven and Oak Bluffs, displaying banners on their vessels that read “Fisheries Science not Political Science” and “Catch Shares Privatize the Sea.” The rally drew national media attention.

Under catch-share systems, fishermen or companies hold a share guaranteeing them a portion of a fishery’s total allowable catch, set by scientists annually. Some fishermen say catch shares privatize fisheries and are often based on flawed stock estimates.

The Obama administration, including National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Administrator Jane Lubchenco, is pushing for New England fisheries to adopt catch-share programs that they say reduce fleet overcapacity, prevent derby-style fishing and provide incentives for fishermen to fish sustainably and improve product quality.

This year, both the New England and Mid-Atlantic fishery management councils voted to adopt the new system. On Monday, the East Coast’s second catch-share program was approved for tilefish by NOAA Fisheries. (Atlantic surf clams and ocean quahogs have been managed under a catch-share program since 1989.)

“Rebuilding our fisheries and preserving the jobs and livelihoods they support are top priorities at NOAA,” said NOAA Fisheries Assistant Administrator Jim Balsiger.

Environmental NGOs, including Environmental Defense Fund, have thrown their support behind catch-share programs.

“The change to catch shares is coming after a lengthy and thorough public process. In fact, the final decision was delayed a full year to allow more time for additional public input. The three-year process showed broad and growing support for catch shares in New England,” said Sally McGee, EDF’s New England policy director, in response to Tuesday’s rally off Martha’s Vineyard.

“The problems with the New England groundfish fishery are deep, severe and centuries in the making,” she added. “Catch shares will not turn this situation around overnight. The alternatives are far worse, however. Without catch shares, the fish stocks and the health of the ocean will only decline further. Catch shares offer hope and a track record of success.”

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