The Obama administration proposed a national fisheries policy today that promotes the use of new cap-and-trade management schemes for federal fisheries.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's proposal encourages regional fishery managers to use "catch shares" in a bid to end overfishing and restore depleted stocks. The plan calls for establishing a support system and laying out federal guidance to expedite efforts by fishery management councils that want to switch to the new management systems.
"Catch shares may not be the best management option for every fishery or sector," the proposal says. "NOAA will not require the use of catch shares in any particular fishery or sector, but it will promote and encourage the careful consideration of catch shares as a means to achieve the conservation, social and economic goals of sustainable fishery management."
Catch-share management regimes are a relatively new approach to managing fish stocks by imposing a strict overall catch limit and dividing that total catch among buyers. In the past year, the journals Science and Nature have published studies that found catch shares can increase the abundance of fish and cut in half the collapse rate for fisheries.
Catch shares -- used by a minority in U.S. fisheries management -- differ from traditional fishery management by giving commercial fishers ownership in the system. Much like the proposed cap-and-trade system for greenhouse gas emissions, the programs allow regulated entities to buy and sell shares. Often, shares are initially allocated based on fishing operations' past catches.
Advocates say catch shares halt the "race for fish" that can come about under traditional systems, when managers set daily or seasonal limits, or only open a fishery for a limited period of time. In those systems, fishing vessels often race to haul in the most fish possible before the fishery is closed.
Under a catch-share system, commercial fishers are allowed to take up to their assigned limit on their own schedule. It allows fishers to work over a longer period of time and sell more fresh fish, rather than haul in all their fish at once for the less lucrative frozen market.
President George W. Bush's administration launched the effort to pursue more catch-share fisheries, but the Obama administration has gone to a new level in efforts to advance the management system. NOAA chief Jane Lubchenco has called catch shares a top priority for fishery management and proposed significant new funding for the programs.
The policy released today was the work of a task force NOAA created last summer in an effort to advance the use of catch shares and make sure they are "fully considered" whenever fishery management councils reconsider management plans. NOAA will be accepting public comment on the draft for the next 120 days.
There are currently more than a dozen catch-share programs, four of which have come online in the past two years. Four more programs are in the development phase. The 2006 Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act authorized the management system for the first time.
The new policy alters NOAA operations in a bid to speed up and streamline the process when any of the regional fishery management councils want to start a new catch-share program. In the past, it has taken anywhere from two years to more than six years for fishery managers to set up the complex new management regimes.
"Up to this point, it has taken years and years to get a catch-share program established a lot of times because there were not the resources and directions from NOAA to fishery managers," said Tom Lalley of the Environmental Defense Fund. "If they wanted to do one, it was like recreating the wheel every time, and there is a ton of work and they are already overloaded -- this policy would free up time and resources."
EDF, commercial and recreational fishing industry groups, and other environmental groups, including the Ocean Conservancy and World Wildlife Fund, co-authored a letter in support of catch-share policies they sent to both the Senate and House yesterday, calling for science-based annual catch limits and effective accountability measures to ensure those limits are not exceeded.
But the programs are not without controversy. Some environmental and fishing groups have pushed back against the Obama administration's aggressive attempts to institute the new systems. The Pew Environment Group, for instance, says the programs have often been successful in meeting conservation goals but can pose problems for commercial fishers, including the possibility of shutting out small fishing operations or consolidating the industry.
Still, the group says it was pleasantly surprised by this morning's draft policy. "I think they have moved in a direction that makes us more comfortable. They are not mandating catch-share policies, and that's a good thing," said Lee Crockett, director of federal fisheries policy for the Pew Environment Group. "They are not even mandating they be considered in every fishery, but they are clearly setting them up that they should be considered."
The group supports a more bottom-up approach where local councils would decide on their own about whether or not to sign onto catch-share programs, and Crockett said he still wonders where the money and personnel for such ventures will come from during the economic downturn.
Other groups have also questioned the socioeconomic effects of the programs, especially for small-scale fishing operations. For instance, Food & Water Watch has been working to organize small fishers to question the plans on the local level.
The chief concern for the fishing and environmental groups that question the plans is over how the programs are set up. The ability to buy and sell shares of fish has the potential to create a system that favors large corporations or cedes parts of the catch to outside interests.
Catch-share programs in Alaska for sablefish and halibut have been widely hailed as a great success for meeting conservation goals and keeping the economy built around the fishery intact. But other catch-share programs have had more questionable results. For instance, catch-share management for the Alaskan crab fishery has shown mixed conservation results and been economically difficult for some communities.
Click here to read the full draft policy.