The New York Times editorial page yesterday focused on one of our pet topics and one of the most important of all ocean issues, overfishing. Particularly it cited the goal of the new chief at NOAA, Jane Lubchenco, to coordinate a single U.S. policy at a time when there are twenty different agencies operating under one hundred and forty different laws:
The White House seems prepared to give this issue high priority. George W. Bush, though more sensitive to marine issues than other environmental problems, was slow to offer remedies, the most important being the establishment of three large protected marine reserves in the Pacific. President Obama has engaged the matter early in the game.
A more immediate measure of the administration’s commitment is the steps it is taking to meet a 2006 Congressional mandate to end overfishing in America’s coastal waters by 2011. The most important of these is an effort led by Jane Lubchenco, a marine biologist who runs the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Her mission is to persuade America’s fishermen to broadly adopt a market-based approach known as “catch shares” to manage their fisheries sustainably.
Under the present system, America’s regional fishing councils, which are run largely by fishermen with federal oversight, set annual catch limits. To meet these quotas, most commercial fleets follow a detailed “days at sea” approach regulating the number of days they may fish, how many fish they may catch and what kind of equipment they may use. The system does not work well. Some people obey the rules, and others don’t. The days-at-sea restrictions often lead to a frantic race to catch as many fish as possible as quickly as possible, which in turn leads to indiscriminate and wasteful fishing.
Ms. Lubchenco’s alternative would give individual fishermen or groups of fishermen fixed shares — a guaranteed percentage — of the annual catch, then let them set the rules. The theory is that share-holding fishermen will have a vested interest in seeing their resource grow, much like shareholders in a company.
Fisheries that use this system — also known as “dedicated access” fisheries — have prospered in places like New Zealand. The dozen or so American fisheries with catch shares, accounting for about one-fifth of the total domestic catch, have also done well.
Ms. Lubchenco has lately been beating the drums for catch shares in New England, whose regional council will shortly take a preliminary vote on the issue. New England’s fishermen could use a change in direction; four-fifths of their commercially important stocks — including cod, pollock and flounder — are in trouble.
The truth is that fisheries almost everywhere could use a change in direction. A well-managed American system would be an example for the world.
In our travels around the world looking at the health of ocean and coastline, we’ve seen some success stories too, particularly in Tasmania where licenses for abalone and crayfish have been reduced in recent years to take pressure off the fishery. We’ve also seen the worst-case-scenarios, like the Adriatic Sea, where Italians, Croatians and a host of international fishing companies have scraped and scoured the bluest-of-all-seas so that there are nearly no fish left.
If you live near a big city, check out the new documentary “End of the Line,” which raises the question of whether or not we are soon to see the last fish caught.