NOAA issued a draft of its new catch share policy last week. Despite Director Jane Lubchenco’s clear support for the concept, the draft policy stops short of requiring that fisheries managers implement catch shares. This is a good thing. Instead of mandating catch shares, the draft policy focuses on education, cooperation, and transparency. The agency commits itself to “reducing technical barriers and administrative impediments” to implementing catch shares. Those are exactly the roles that NOAA should be playing.
Too often, proponents of catch shares imply that all we need do is wave a private property wand and the problems besetting fisheries will magically solve themselves. If only it were that easy. The basic idea is to set a firm cap on how much of each kind of fish can be captured in a fishery. This cap, the Annual Catch Limit (ACL) is supposed to be set at a level that prevents overfishing, and restores depleted stocks (that's good). Catch shares then divide that catch up among participants in the fisheries. In most cases, the participants are then free to use their shares or to lease them to others, or trade them on the much fabled “free-market”. Much of the conversation surrounding catch shares is so focused on the supposed efficiencies of this property-rights regime that it ignores the problems of overcapacity, by-catch and enforcement.
The NOAA draft policy deserves credit for at least raising these issues, although it could do far more to bring them into focus. Unfortunately, the draft policy doesn’t engage with the serious distributional concerns associated with many catch share plans raise. Other than some general language about “community sustainability” the draft plan ignores the distributional implications of catch shares entirely. Catch share programs can lead to boat owners being squeezed by armchair fishermen seeking economic rents. The crew and deckhands plying their dangerous craft are even more vulnerable in a catch share situation. Their already measly share of the catch is often further reduced to cover leasing fees, and there are even reports of crew being booted off boats in favor of share holders. Catch shares cannot be a progressive tool for fisheries management if hard working crews wind up as sharecroppers. Managers need to create an appropriate regulatory context within rigorous, scientifically-defined, and well-enforced annual catch limits. Only then might well-designed catch share programs be worth exploring.