Reject Distractions; Fix Catch Shares Now

This post comes to us from Brett Tolley, NAMA’s community organizer. The original content appeared in the September edition of Commercial Fisheries News.

Three years ago I sat amongst a group of fishermen
testifying that the new catch share program in New England was not working and
needed to be fixed. The fleet was consolidating, access was becoming
unaffordable to independent people, and too much pressure was hitting the
inshore fishing areas. Several members of the
New England Fishery ManagementCouncil along with lobbyists, who support catch share ideology, denied these
Not surprisingly, these problems have yet to be fixed. 
Advocates of the catch share approach promised higher prices
to fishermen, better stewardship over the ocean, and a general improvement in
fishermen’s livelihoods. Instead we’re seeing an unaffordable quota leasing
market where, for example, George’s Bank Cod (east) leased last year for an
average cost of $2.48/pound while the average ex-vessel price to the boat was

We’re seeing non owner-operator companies control upwards of 23%
of access to a single fish species. Younger fishermen can’t afford entry into the fishery. And we’re seeing the program incentivize a
heavy shift of fishing effort onto near shore waters leaving inshore-dependent
fishermen without fish to catch.
Fisherman Kevin McDonough testified to what 
few opportunities there are for younger fishermen.

How did we get here?
These problems aren’t unique to New England. In fact, many
fishermen and researchers predicted these outcomes. Back in 1990 the first US
Catch Share program – then called Individual Transferable Quotas or ITQs –
began with the Surf Clam and Ocean Quahog fishery in the mid-Atlantic region.
In a few short years the fishery, which previously had supported many owner-operators, was transformed into one controlled by just three multi-national corporations. Last year
Lion Capital, a British private equity firm, paid $980 million to acquire
Bumble Bee Foods and Bumble Bee’s subsidiary Snow’s Inc, which included the
exclusive property rights to 23% of the United States’ clams. 

The Center for Investigative Reporting created this video 
which provides an overview of how catch share programs work.

Similar patterns have occurred in Iceland, New Zealand,
Namibia, and many other countries around the world. In the case of Iceland, the
Catch Share program had nothing to show in terms of rebuilding the fish stocks
and meanwhile was undermining fishing community infrastructure and jobs.
Fishermen took their grievances all the way to the United Nations Human Rights Committee and they won! In 2007 the UN ruled that privatization violated the
International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and soon afterwards the
Icelandic government began a process to dismantle the program.
Who is behind the push for Catch Shares?
The broad strategy of implementing Catch Shares is
ideologically driven and is backed by a unique alliance of conservative,
free-market advocates as well as foundation-funded environmental groups.

The Walton Family Foundation of Walmart, for example, spent
$20 million in 2012 for the 
sole purpose of promoting Catch Share programs with
an explicit goal of commoditizing seafood into a global market that values
high-volume, low-value ‘efficient’ fisheries. You know… the same ones that
charge a fisherman $2.48/lb for the rights to fish and pays them $1.08 for that
fish when they bring to shore. Its no wonder the fishermen keep saying we need
more fish. If you’re told the only way to make ends meet is with volume n
value what would you do? 

As I’ve written elsewhere with professor Seth Macinko at the University of Rhode Island, the core assumption of Catch
Share ideology is that if we turn fisheries access into private property, than
we’ll take better care of the fish. The problem of course, is that the
fisheries already have an owner – the American public. The idea that private
owners will automatically act as stewards to preserve their assets was proven
dramatically naïve by the world financial crisis of 2008. Why should we assume
now that what is bad for banks will then be good for fish?

Others who defend Catch Share ideology include the likes of
the Koch brothers and the Charles Koch Foundation who have teamed up with
organizations such as the Environmental Defense Fund to heavily fund campaigns
to promote Catch Shares.
With pressure and financial backing like that, its no wonder
fishermen and allies in New England face such extreme resistance when seeking
policy fixes to very clear problems that affect both the health of the ocean
and fishing livelihoods.
Reforming Catch Shares
There is an increasing number of brave fishermen, Council
members, and others who continue to shed light on the problems associated with catch shares and to offer solutions moving forward, including limits on quota
accumulation, safeguards for inshore fishing areas, and more transparency on
ownership trends. However, as more fishermen speak out, we’re hearing more and
more about backlash from supporters of Catch Shares, where vocal fishermen are
getting cut out of the leasing market, bullied out on the water, or socially

Fisherman, Ron Borjeson, testifies to the NE Council 
about the impact of current policies and the need to ensure 
the scale of fisheries matches the scale of the marine ecosystem.

Amendment 18, the main policy vehicle to fix things, will be
discussed October 1 at a NE Council meeting. Three years ago I recall the
National Marine Fisheries Service announcing the heart-wrenching news that cod
catch would be cut to disastrously low numbers. In typical fashion, some
Council members took advantage of the news in order to distract from dealing
with Amendment 18. I heard several Council members liken the situation to a
tsumani that would surely take the entire fleet under and therefore we didn’t
need any action at that time on Amendment 18. Today we’re receiving similar
news about the cod stocks and already Council members are making similar claims
to avoid or delay consideration of reform proposals.

Fisherman BG Brown shares how current policy is 
reducing opportunity for independent, owner-operator 
fishermen, and those with the lowest carbon footprint.

The real tsunami here is a global strategy to transform
fisheries from publicly managed access into privatized property, effectively
displacing independent family fishermen (those with the smallest ecological
footprint), placing enormous pressure on the marine environment (including the
cod stocks!), and ultimately turning fish into commodities for the global

in New England can tip the scales away from policies that privatize the public
commons and consolidate the fishing industry.
  For the sake of current and future generations of fish and
fishermen, the council must proceed to a vote on Amendment 18 to identify the
best alternatives to a flawed system and protect the fisheries as a public