Babbitt, Gorton promote catch shares, discuss future of fisheries policy

Does fisheries catch share policy need to be updated to require more up-to-date scientific data? During today's OnPoint, Bruce Babbitt, former Interior secretary during the Clinton administration, and Slade Gorton, a former U.S. senator, discuss the policy debate on catch shares and explain why they believe catch shares are critical to restoring fish populations.


Monica Trauzzi: Hello and welcome to OnPoint. I'm Monica Trauzzi. Joining me today are Bruce Babbitt, a former secretary of Interior during the Clinton administration, and Slade Gorton, a former U.S. senator. It is great to have you both on the show.

Slade Gorton: Monica.

Monica Trauzzi: Bruce, so we have a former Interior secretary and a former U.S. Senator, a D and an R coming together on the issue of fisheries management. Why this issue?

Bruce Babbitt: Well, I admit it's a little unusual. Slade and I have spent a lot of time in our careers of fighting each other over dam removal, over salmon, but even though we're R and D and adversaries, we've come together on fisheries management because the ocean fisheries are declining. They're in a lot of trouble. We need to learn how to manage them. And this idea of catch shares, of having a scientifically-based catch limit and then allocating out shares to fishermen who then have a permanent and vested interest in the success of the fishery and how to grow it and increase it and bring it back to health, really isn't a partisan idea. It's really a superb example of this idea of sustainable management. It should have Republican support and Democratic support and, frankly, we're here to prove that even adversaries can agree on something that's this important.

Monica Trauzzi: And, Slade, this issue of catch shares might be unclear to some people. Can you just elaborate on it a bit?

Slade Gorton: Certainly. For hundreds of years anyone who wanted to go fishing could go fishing and it worked. But as more population, more efficient gear, more efficient ships came on, it didn't work anymore and fishery stocks all over the world and in the United States were declining. So first the federal government went to, well, let's limit the kind of gear they can use. Let's limit the number of days they can go fishing. Near where I live, in the Gulf of Alaska, the halibut got to a point where you could fish for halibut three days a year and if there was a hurricane going on, you had to go on in it. Fishing is the most dangerous profession in the United States. Catch shares simply say based on what you've done in the past, you have this percentage of a total catch that we'll set up every single year. You can fish anytime in the year you want. It is so much better a system, because not only is it better for the fishermen and better for their markets, it means that we can actually recover stocks of fish that have been declining for a century.

Monica Trauzzi: But Bruce, there's an argument against these catch shares and this is being discussed in the House Natural Resources Committee. There are folks that say that they're overly restrictive. Does this need to be looked at?

Bruce Babbitt: Well, the critical thing is how you set the overall limit to help restore the fishery. Now, that's an important scientific question and there obviously can be disagreement, but the important thing is to accept the fact that if we're going to restore these fisheries, which are really vastly depleted, we have to have the scientists in there to say there's this much catch available consistent with restoring the fishery. At which point all of the fishermen benefit from the restored fishery.

Slade Gorton: And, in fact, in the catch share fisheries the fishermen had become involved in it and much of the science -- much of the statistics that go into the science come from the fishermen themselves, because they can see, since they have an interest in it, their interest in having larger stocks. Remember, their catch shares are a percentage of what -- the number of fish that can be caught. The larger that number, the larger their percentage share becomes.

Monica Trauzzi: So, Chairman Hastings has pointed to the fact that there's a need for more up-to-date scientific data. Are you in agreement with him or where do you come down on that?

Slade Gorton: There are some fish stocks in which the science is really pretty good. There's still some fish stocks in which there's almost no science at all. Of course, we need better figures, but when we know those figures, we need to know how to save the fish. We need to know how to divide the fish among its users.

Bruce Babbitt: I think it's important to understand that in any fishery, if we're going to save it, there must be some overall limit. There's no way of getting around that and the science helps us get there. But the real question is how do you manage the fishery beneath the cap of which everyone agrees has to be set? And the idea of giving the fishermen a fixed share, which is theirs for the future, gives them a stake not in fighting the system, but in cooperating to make it work. That's really the revolution here. I spent eight years in the Clinton administration trying to do command-and-control regulation. How many boats? What kind of equipment? How many days in a season? And you turn the fishermen into adversaries rather than cooperators, that's the big turnaround in this kind of system.

Slade Gorton: Bruce is entirely right. Instead of having the government and the fishermen at loggerheads, you have them working down the same road together. The fish resource is better off. The fishermen are better off. People are better off. You can buy fresh fish more, again, more places and more times in the year.

Monica Trauzzi: So, Bruce, based on what you're seeing coming out of the House Natural Resources Committee, are you in crisis mode? Are you ringing the alarm?

Bruce Babbitt: Monica, here's the problem. The system is demonstrably successful. Where we have catch shares the stocks are recovering. It's now being implemented rather widely, 50 percent of fisheries in the United States. The problem is it's not widely understood and the idea, this revolution if you will, is not understood by 90 percent of the members of Congress. It's not understood by 99.9 percent of the American people. And to make it really vibrant we've got to have a much broader level of political understanding. That's the problem in Congress and it's the reason that Slade and I have sort of been drawn out of retirement to get back into the fray and say, look, we agree on this.

Slade Gorton: This is a wonderful idea no one knows anything about.

Bruce Babbitt: That's the problem.

Slade Gorton: The more people who know about it, the more people will support it.

Monica Trauzzi: But there is a push, Slade, to address this in the appropriations bill. How likely is that?

Slade Gorton: The House of Representatives actually passed a rider on an appropriations bill to prohibit any more catch share systems for the year that the appropriations lasted. It has not passed the Senate. We hope it won't pass the Senate. We don't think it will. We are here to say it shouldn't.

Monica Trauzzi: All right, we're going to end it right there. Thank you both for coming on the show, very interesting. And thank you for watching. We'll see you back here tomorrow.

[End of Audio]



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