Catch shares: Wall Street's campaign to take over Ocean Avenue

Obviously not a fisherman himself, Mr. Landrith describes the catch share paradigm as one that recognizes “fishermen have property rights.”  In actuality, fish stocks are a public resource and belong to each and every American. In order to endorse the ‘catch share’ principle one would have to support the idea of federal government granting sole and exclusive access to ocean fish to one person or entity, to the exclusion of all others. 

Once assigned this fisheries ownership privilege, said owner is granted exclusive rights to that fish, wherever it may swim. If he chooses to harvest this fish, only he may do so only by possessing this government issued ‘individual fishing quota’ or IFQ. If he wishes to sit on that IFQ to reduce supply while increasing public demand, he may. If he wishes to lease it to another to use, or buy up all other individual shares, there is nothing to stop him. 

But without this government issued IFQ, there is no fishing. It’s a system designed for capacity reduction, to remove fishermen, primarily smaller business owners who can’t compete with big money equity and private investment. 

Perhaps Mr. Landrith and his Frontiers of Freedom might’ve supported the concept of ‘sharecropping’ after the Civil War during the Reconstruction, but coastal sharecropping whereby corporate entities are granted sole rights to a public resource to resell on the open market does not represent free enterprise, free markets or any of the traditional American values that I hold dear. It’s a resource grab, plain and simple, and the ramifications thus far have proven frightening. 

Mr. Landrith says wherever this “new approach has been tried, it has been successful, both for fishing production and conservation,” but he fails to cite any real examples. If he were to reference the New England groundfishery, Mr. Landrith would have to explain the total collapse of three and a half centuries of cod and the economic disaster which has occurred in the 3 years since this sector-based fisheries plan based on catch share quotas was initiated in 2010. Mr. Landrith would also have to explain the fleet consolidation on the West Coast and the increase of what NOAA Fisheries last week referred to as “Sea Lords” in the Gulf of Mexico, shareholders who don’t actually land their allocation. The report from the Department of Commerce also noted a loss of jobs in the Gulf region due to fleet consolidation and an access barrier resulting in negative economic impacts for many coastal communities.

As for his position that opposition to coastal sharecropping schemes and privatization models arises out of “simple misunderstandings and misinformation,” while stating “catch shares doesn’t touch recreational fishing,” that runs completely counter to a recent proposal by NOAA Fisheries given before the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council on April 16, when the subject of inter-sector trading of red snapper resources was proposed via a series of community banks, lotteries and auction houses whereby “individual private anglers buy and harvest red snapper IFQ directly from IFQ holders,” possibly in the form of a limited number of fish tags.

Hard to believe that the “misinformation” is coming from coastal fishermen, when we’re the ones attending these fisheries hearings to learn how our federal government is proposing to privatize marine fisheries in order to sell back access rights to individual anglers under the guise of conservation. This isn’t a “simple misunderstanding” but one which has been presented in black and white by environmental non-government organizations and the government itself. 

As a business professional, perhaps Mr. Landrith believes that private investors and Wall Street types should be given a shot at ownership of this last great American frontier; I’m sure a corporation like Wal-Mart would love to buy up ‘fish tags’ at wholesale prices in order to sell back at retail to any American consumer who wishes to take the family out for a day on the water. 

As for those of us in the fishing industry who are watching our rights quickly erode due to this same over-burdensome governmental intrusion, it’s a shame that groups like Frontiers of Freedom aren’t more focused on the freedom aspect of their belief structure rather than ownership opportunities that arise from privatizing a coastal frontier once viewed as a public resource, open and accessible to all Americans. 

Catch shares are only a “free market” at the onset; once the buyers have been chosen and established, access to our coastal fisheries can only occur at the discretion of those who were able to buy-in at the early “free market” price.  When the “sea lords” have established territorial domain, the traditional American values of wetting a line on a Saturday afternoon will be nothing but a lost tradition.

Hutchinson is managing director of the Recreational Fishing Alliance.

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