San Francisco Chronicle 11/12/08

Fisheries off the coast of California, like fisheries around the world, have been battling collapse for years. Lax regulations, wasteful practices, a growing global appetite for fish and increased competition among fishermen for the few fish that remain - all of these things contributed to the federal government's decision, in 2000, to formally declare the fisheries stretching from Morro Bay on the central coast all the way up to Washington state's Puget Sound an "economic disaster." The ensuing attempts to restrict the catch frustrated fishermen, but did little to help the fish recover.

So kudos to the Pacific Fishery Management Council for deciding that it's time to try something radically new and different. In a unanimous vote last week, the council decided to implement the model that's turned around Alaskan fisheries. It requires fishermen to share the catch, not compete for it. A recent study in the journal Science suggested that a fishery can be saved when fishermen are given a guaranteed share of the catch. The study suggested that shared stakes worked better than other restrictions, including overall restrictions on the catch and seasonal limits.

The method's worked in Alaska, by far the country's biggest source for fish (over 5 billion pounds caught annually). There, fishermen self-police, abiding by annual catch limits determined by scientists and sharing the profits. Alaska's fisheries are considered some of the world's best-managed, and most of them are certified as sustainable. It's an impressive record that we'd do well to copy here.

Of course, here we would have to have more than self-policing, because some fishing groups are already hopping mad, calling the council's plan "sharecropping."

Well. It's only sharecropping if there's a plantation to work on, and the status quo is going to wipe all of us out - environmentalists, fishermen and fish-lovers alike. It's true that the fishing industry will probably contract under this new plan: typically the industry consolidates under catch-share programs, as some fishermen sell their quotas and cash out of the business. But every fishing group would be wise to support the change, because a contracted industry beats a collapsed industry any day.