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
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.