Catch shares: A dangerous weapon in 'war' on environment

Perhaps Babbitt is simply following in NOAA’s footsteps (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration – ironically, the branch of our government tasked with protecting our ocean resources) as the agency ramps up these economically and environmentally unsustainable programs on every coast, despite job losses for thousands of fishermen and numerous legal challenges to their constitutionality. 

Either way, the question remains, why is our federal government under NOAA so hell-bent on pushing catch shares when they are clearly at odds with ecosystem-based management? Rather than manage resources based on the interplay between all species and their habitats, catch shares single out specific species and turn them into what is essentially private property. This is likely why private investment groups and even some public interest groups have gone so far as to compare the buying and selling of fish under catch shares to the stock market.

When our government backs a policy that allows investors to treat a public resource (i.e. fish) like an investment that can be bought and sold for personal profit, the results are often disastrous – for the environment, the economy and the consumer.

Despite the facts, investors and pro-catch shares groups argue that catch shares are not disastrous and that they even help restock fish populations. In reality, however, fish populations under some of the oldest catch share systems in the world are still overfished. In New Zealand, the percentage of assessed fish populations failing to meet desired sustainability levels doubled under catch shares between 2006 and 2010. In Norway, cod stocks dropped to their lowest level ever in 2006 after years of catch shares management. And more often then not, catch share programs in the United States are being applied to fisheries where overfishing is not even occurring.

Fish aren’t the only thing disappearing under catch shares; so are jobs. Catch shares fundamentally alter the economic landscape of our nations fisheries by pushing smaller vessels off the water. Last year, for example, about five months after a catch shares program began in New England, 55 of the initial 500 boats in the fishery controlled 61 percent of the revenue, while 253 of those 500 boats were sitting idle at dock because they had not been granted enough access to fish under the regional catch shares program.

Given the devastating economic effect these programs have on coastal communities and fishermen, the United States cannot afford to pursue catch shares under the guise of environmental sustainability, nor should we.

Fortunately, Congress, in an attempt to stop the madness, defunded the creation of any new catch share programs on the East Coast until the end of FY 2011. While this safeguards some fishing communities for the coming year, legislation is needed to protect them and other non-covered fisheries for years into the future. Congress must prohibit NOAA from implementing catch shares as they have been in the past, in order to ensure the long-term health of our commercial and recreational fishing industries.

Wenonah Hauter is the executive director of Food & Water Watch.

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