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Research highlight: New evidence that catch shares slow the "race to fish"

Research highlight: New evidence that catch shares slow the "race to fish"

By Anna Birkenbach

Anna Birkenbach is a 2016 National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Sea Grant Office and NOAA Fisheries joint fellow from North Carolina. She is a doctoral student in environmental policy at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment.

Catch shares are a style of management in which a total yearly allowable catch is set for the whole fishery and then divided up among vessels, individuals, or groups of fishermen in the form of quotas — in essence, cap-and-trade for fish. Each fisherman can then decide when and how to catch his allotted proportion.

By contrast, traditional management programs do not directly limit individuals’ harvests. Instead the season closes when the yearly allowable catch is reached in aggregate. Individual fishermen or vessels have no guaranteed share and therefore compete to maximize their harvest before the fishery is shut down for the season.

In some fisheries, traditional management gave rise to frenetic, dangerous, and costly fishing activities known as derbies, most famously those for Alaskan Pacific halibut in the early 1990s. Caught in a cycle of stock declines, shrinking seasons, and over-investment in fishing capital, managers in many fisheries across the country have decided to give catch shares a try.

Yet despite a nearly 30-year presence in the United States, catch shares remain controversial. Advocates argue that catch shares end the race to fish, thus promoting economic efficiency, improving safety, and providing consumers with a more consistent supply of fresh seafood. Detractors say catch shares concentrate quota in the hands of corporations at the expense of small-scale fishermen, while doing nothing to protect stocks.

Many questions are contained within this debate. My research, with Duke University co-authors David Kaczan and Martin Smith, addresses an important one: Do catch shares really slow the race to fish, as claimed by their proponents? We published our findings in a paper in the journal Nature in April.

We compared every U.S. catch share fishery with monthly data to a similar fishery that did not implement catch shares at the same time. To determine if catch shares affected season lengths, we measured differences in how the distribution of harvest changed over time between these fisheries. We then averaged those differences to find the net effect of catch shares across the United States.

Our answer is a clear yes: Catch shares generally do slow the race to fish. 

On average, fishermen in a catch-share fishery take about one extra month to bring in 80 percent of a fishery’s total catch. This additional time may contribute to improved safety and lower costs while fishing, while enabling fishermen to avoid market gluts that depress revenues and reduce consumers’ access to fresh seafood. No matter how you slice it, these are all good things.

But this is a view of catch shares from 50,000 feet, and there are important caveats to keep in mind.

Our average result masks important variation in how different fisheries respond to catch shares. Among the 39 catch-share fisheries in our study, we expected that some would not experience appreciable slowing of the race, such as fisheries whose seasons had previously taken the form of multiple, small derbies rather than one big one. But to our surprise, we also found a handful of cases where seasons became more compressed following catch shares. Why would this happen?

We noticed that anomalies tended to be lower-priced products in multispecies fisheries, suggesting that fishermen may speed up their catch of some species to leave time for more careful pursuit of other, higher-value species for which they also have quota. On average the season extends, but for each individual species, not always.

The tradeoffs fishermen face in making targeting and timing decisions within multispecies or mixed-management contexts are extremely complex. Changing how they harvest one species has implications for the harvest of another species, and the effects of catch shares on harvest patterns and economic outcomes for fishermen are the subjects of ongoing research.

As a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Sea Grant Office and NOAA Fisheries joint fellow from North Carolina, I’m working to better understand these effects. I am using the New England groundfish complex, which switched to catch shares in 2010, as a case study.

I seek to better understand the outcomes of catch shares on fishery participation, harvesting decisions and revenues so that managers can use this information to improve policy design. Ultimately, maximizing the value generated from the resource — getting more money from the same fish — will help to strengthen fishing communities and improve their resilience to future economic or other shocks.

A closely related and critical question is how these revenues are distributed under catch shares. Do these policies promote corporate empires at the expense of family or local operations? Economic efficiency is important, but so are equity and fairness, especially if the goal is to strengthen communities made up of small businesses and individuals whose livelihoods depend on these resources.

As researchers continue to study the costs and benefits of catch shares, these considerations should be kept firmly in mind. Many of these issues can be addressed through careful policy design. For example, the Pacific groundfish quota program has measures in place to prevent the sort of fishing industry consolidation that occurred in New England. Research on how effective various catch share program features are at achieving social goals is presently underway.

Though catch shares remain controversial, our paper is part of a larger effort to assess their performance based on available evidence from existing programs. In establishing that catch shares do slow the race to fish on average, my colleagues and I have provided one piece of the puzzle, which we hope — along with the input of other researchers and stakeholders — will make the big picture clearer and illuminate the path forward.

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