Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Teach a Man to Share a Fish, and He’ll Fish Forever

• September 18, 2008 • 11:47 PM

A new paper suggests fishery collapse isn’t inevitable if those harvesting seafood share what’s there.

By the early 1990s, Alaska’s halibut stocks had dwindled to the point that the commercial season lasted just two days. Fishermen were forced to frantically haul in as much halibut as they could over that time, flooding the market and sending prices plummeting. What wasn’t sold fresh was frozen into an even less lucrative product.

During those same years, Canada’s commercial halibut season lasted at least six months. The difference was that in 1991 Canada switched from the conventional fisheries management system, which set a limit on the total halibut haul, but let fishermen fight it out for a share, to a catch-share approach. Each fisherman was allocated a particular portion of the total harvest, which they could catch at their leisure.

Alaska followed suit in 1995, and its halibut stocks have since rebounded to the point that the commercial season there now lasts nearly eight months.

Catch-share systems are used to manage at least 120 fisheries worldwide, most of them in New Zealand, Australia and Iceland. The economic benefits of the approach have been fairly well established, but there hadn’t been research done on a large scale on the consequence of the approach for seafood stocks.

Now researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the University of Hawaii at Manoa have analyzed data collected from 1950 to 2003 from more than 11,000 commercial fisheries around the globe. Their conclusions, published Thursday in the journal Science, are striking: Those that were managed using catch-share systems were half as likely to have collapsed by 2003 as those under a traditional system. Moreover, the longer the fisheries had been managed using catch shares, the better shape they were in.

“It was a huge, huge effect,” says Steve Gaines, director of the Marine Science Institute at UCSB and one of the authors of the paper. Catch shares, he added, “dramatically changed the story.”

“They actually prevent collapse,” said co-author Christopher Costello, an economist at UCSB’s Donald Bren School of Environmental Science & Management.

The researchers used the same data as a headline-hogging study published in Science two years ago. It predicted that if nothing changed, all of the world’s fisheries would collapse by 2048. That report ushered in an era of fearful prognostications over the future of fisheries and the health of the oceans and prompted Gaines and his colleagues to turn their attention to potential solutions.

“We were motivated by all the doom and gloom reports we’ve seen about oceans over the last few years,” he said.

They focused on the most common kind of catch-share system: individual transferable quotas (ITQs), in which the total allowable catch is divided up between share holders, as it was in the Alaskan halibut fishery. Another approach gives fishermen exclusive rights to fish in a certain area. That system works best with species like urchins and abalones that don’t move much, giving share holders the chance to sustainably manage them within their allocated area.

Gaines and his colleagues set out to see if a catch-share approach could help head off the catastrophic decline in seafood stocks predicted by the notorious 2006 report, known among those in the field as “The 2048 Paper.” The answer, they found, is a resounding “yes.”

The secret to the success of catch shares, Gaines explains, is that they give fishermen ownership of a fishery.

“They basically own an asset that is a share of the total catch,” Costello said. “It’s just like if you own shares in Microsoft or Google.” Like those holdings, catch shares can be bought and sold. They increase in value as the fish population — and hence the total allowable catch — grows.

Privatizing the ocean in this way has its share of critics. In a 1999 report, Greenpeace argued that it had hampered fish conservation and led to job losses. However Gaines notes that “on land, the biggest driver of conservation is the ability to buy property and set it aside.”

Catch shares increase in value as the fish population — and hence the total allowable harvest — grows. “The more profitable Microsoft is,” Costello says, “the more valuable your share is, so you would want to make sound decisions.”

“The more profitable Microsoft is, the more valuable your share is, so you would want to make sound decisions.”

Compare that to traditional quota systems, which spur “a race to fish among fishermen,” Costello said, “in which they’re really trying to compete with each other to catch more and more fish.” It’s a version of the “tragedy of the commons,” the concept popularized by UCSB’s Garrett Hardin in a 1968 article in Science in which he noted that people are likely to draw the maximum they can from shared resources even when doing so is likely to destroy the resource.

If stocks dwindle, fisheries managers may cut the total allowable catch, often prompting an outcry from fishermen whose livelihoods depend on how many tons of seafood they pull out of the ocean. If resource managers rescind and boost the total quota for the fishery, stocks will be hit harder. The result, Gaines said, can be “a vicious spiral down to fisheries collapse.”

By contrast, in some areas where catch-share systems are used, Costello said fishermen have lobbied for lower total catches in order to sustain fish populations in the long term. Some have changed how they fish to reduce the impact on the ecosystem — even if it means hauling in fewer fish on each trip. That wouldn’t happen under a traditional management system, Gaines said, because of the race for as a big a share as possible of a limited harvest.

Conventional fisheries management systems may thwart fishermen’s efforts to sustainably manage seafood stocks because anyone who opts for a less intense approach will lag behind in the race to harvest.

But if catch-share systems are so great, and they’ve been successfully used in other parts of the world since the 1970s, why haven’t they been widely implemented in the United States?

Pete Leipzig, executive director of the Fishermen’s Marketing Association, which represents trawlers on the West Coast and is pushing for a catch-share system for the groundfish fishery there, puts part of the blame on a sluggish bureaucracy.

“The industry’s been talking about it for 10 years,” he says, “and we’re five years into the federal process.” In November, the Pacific Fishery Management Council, which manages the West Coast groundfish fishery, will decide whether to move to a catch share system.

One of the stumbling blocks has been figuring out how to initially allocate catch shares — a common cause of consternation, Gaines said. It’s been done in other fisheries according to historic fishing patterns or by auction. Leipzig said trawlers were steamed when seafood companies asked for sizeable chunks of the West Coast groundfish trawl allocation. Until the PFMC makes a decision on that, “there’s a lot of uncertainty,” Leipzig said, “and the fleet’s very, very nervous.”

Change in general makes fishermen nervous, he added. “They tend to be conservative. When you start to talk about change, they wonder what it means to them, their families, ports.”

Nonetheless, “I think they know that things have to change.” He believes the change will be positive: a rare win-win both environmentally and economically.

Under catch-share systems, the price of seafood often rises, Gaines said. Rather than being forced to flood the market during a limited fishing season, fishermen can spread out their harvest, pulling in more fish when they know there’s a high demand.

“A fisherman can make the business decision of when he wants to fish: when it’s available to fish, when the market is best, when the weather is safest,” Leipzig said.

For consumers, Gaines said, the price increase isn’t as bad as it sounds because they’re getting a better product: fresh seafood for more of the year.

Under Alaska’s “old derby-style halibut fishery,” Costello said, “consumers were loving it for two days of the year because they could get all the halibut they wanted for dirt cheap. But what about the other 363 days of the year?

“They’re eating frozen fish.”

Sign up for our free e-newsletter.

Are you on Facebook? Click here to become our fan.

Add our news to your site.

Anna Davison
New Zealand-born and California-based freelance writer Anna Davison specializes in covering science and the environment.

More From Anna Davison

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 31 • 4:00 PM

Should the Victims of the War on Drugs Receive Reparations?

A drug war Truth and Reconciliation Commission along the lines of post-apartheid South Africa is a radical idea proposed by the Green Party. Substance.com asks their candidates for New York State’s gubernatorial election to tell us more.


October 31 • 2:00 PM

India’s Struggle to Get Reliable Power to Hundreds of Millions of People

India’s new Prime Minister Narendra Modi is known as a “big thinker” when it comes to energy. But in his country’s case, could thinking big be a huge mistake?


October 31 • 12:00 PM

In the Picture: SNAP Food Benefits, Birthday Cake, and Walmart

In every issue, we fix our gaze on an everyday photograph and chase down facts about details in the frame.


October 31 • 10:15 AM

Levels of Depression Could Be Evaluated Through Measurements of Acoustic Speech

Engineers find tell-tale signs in speech patterns of the depressed.


October 31 • 8:00 AM

Who Wants a Cute Congressman?

You probably do—even if you won’t admit it. In politics, looks aren’t everything, but they’re definitely something.


October 31 • 7:00 AM

Why Scientists Make Promises They Can’t Keep

A research proposal that is totally upfront about the uncertainty of the scientific process and its potential benefits might never pass governmental muster.


October 31 • 6:12 AM

The Psychology of a Horror Movie Fan

Scientists have tried to figure out the appeal of axe murderers and creepy dolls, but it mostly remains a spooky mystery.


October 31 • 4:00 AM

The Power of Third Person Plural on Support for Public Policies

Researchers find citizens react differently to policy proposals when they’re framed as impacting “people,” as opposed to “you.”


October 30 • 4:00 PM

I Should Have Told My High School Students About My Struggle With Drinking

As a teacher, my students confided in me about many harrowing aspects of their lives. I never crossed the line and shared my biggest problem with them—but now I wish I had.


October 30 • 2:00 PM

How Dark Money Got a Mining Company Everything It Wanted

An accidentally released court filing reveals how one company secretly gave money to a non-profit that helped get favorable mining legislation passed.


October 30 • 12:00 PM

The Halloween Industrial Complex

The scariest thing about Halloween might be just how seriously we take it. For this week’s holiday, Americans of all ages will spend more than $5 billion on disposable costumes and bite-size candy.


October 30 • 10:00 AM

Sky’s the Limit: The Case for Selling Air Rights

Lower taxes and debt, increased revenue for the city, and a much better use of space in already dense environments: Selling air rights and encouraging upward growth seem like no-brainers, but NIMBY resistance and philosophical barriers remain.


October 30 • 9:00 AM

Cycles of Fear and Bias in the Criminal Justice System

Exploring the psychological roots of racial disparity in U.S. prisons.


October 30 • 8:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Email Newsletter Writer?

Noah Davis talks to Wait But Why writer Tim Urban about the newsletter concept, the research process, and escaping “money-flushing toilet” status.



October 30 • 6:00 AM

Dreamers of the Carbon-Free Dream

Can California go full-renewable?


October 30 • 5:08 AM

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it’s probably something we should work on.


October 30 • 4:00 AM

He’s Definitely a Liberal—Just Check Out His Brain Scan

New research finds political ideology can be easily determined by examining how one’s brain reacts to disgusting images.


October 29 • 4:00 PM

Should We Prosecute Climate Change Protesters Who Break the Law?

A conversation with Bristol County, Massachusetts, District Attorney Sam Sutter, who dropped steep charges against two climate change protesters.


October 29 • 2:23 PM

Innovation Geography: The Beginning of the End for Silicon Valley

Will a lack of affordable housing hinder the growth of creative start-ups?


October 29 • 2:00 PM

Trapped in the Tobacco Debt Trap

A refinance of Niagara County, New York’s tobacco bonds was good news—but for investors, not taxpayers.


October 29 • 12:00 PM

Purity and Self-Mutilation in Thailand

During the nine-day Phuket Vegetarian Festival, a group of chosen ones known as the mah song torture themselves in order to redirect bad luck and misfortune away from their communities and ensure a year of prosperity.


October 29 • 10:00 AM

Can Proposition 47 Solve California’s Problem With Mass Incarceration?

Reducing penalties for low-level felonies could be the next step in rolling back draconian sentencing laws and addressing the criminal justice system’s long legacy of racism.


October 29 • 9:00 AM

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.


October 29 • 8:00 AM

America’s Bathrooms Are a Total Failure

No matter which American bathroom is crowned in this year’s America’s Best Restroom contest, it will still have a host of terrible flaws.


Follow us


Levels of Depression Could Be Evaluated Through Measurements of Acoustic Speech

Engineers find tell-tale signs in speech patterns of the depressed.

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it's probably something we should work on.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

Incumbents, Pray for Rain

Come next Tuesday, rain could push voters toward safer, more predictable candidates.

Could Economics Benefit From Computer Science Thinking?

Computational complexity could offer new insight into old ideas in biology and, yes, even the dismal science.

The Big One

One town, Champlain, New York, was the source of nearly half the scams targeting small businesses in the United States last year. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.