How to Save New England's Fishing Villages

If only the fishers will allow it


The Newfoundland cod fishery collapsed in 1992. Once one of the world's greatest fisheries, the number of fish capable of spawning had dropped by 99 percent from what it had been in 1962. The Canadian government finally closed the fishery in the hope that it would recover. It hasn't, and 40,000 people have lost their jobs.

This is not an isolated story. Fisheries all around the world are under pressure, and many are on the verge of collapse. The New England cod fishery is teetering on the edge, even as fishers desperate to make a living continue to kill way too many fish.

Too many fishers are chasing too few fish. It's the classic story of most environmental problems—an open access resource is being overexploited. If a fisher leaves a fish in the water to spawn, the next guy will catch it and sell it. Thus no individual fisher has the incentive to protect the health and productivity of the fishery. It's a race to the bottom with both fish and fishers losing out.

Earlier this month, the Bush Administration proposed a sensible way out of this death spiral—create individual fishing quotas (IFQs). In other words, give the fish to individual fishers; then each one would have an incentive to protect and increase the size of his or her catch.

We know that IFQs work. They were adopted against great opposition in various Alaskan fisheries including the halibut, sablefish, and pollock fisheries in the 1990s. The halibut season was once 10 months long, but due to overfishing, the government fisheries managers kept shortening the season as way to limit catches. It didn't work; the fishers boosted their catches with better and better gear. By 1994, the halibut season was down to two chaotic 24 hour "derbies," yet the overall catch size was about the same that it had been when the season had lasted 10 months. "The goal was to land as many fish as you could as quickly as you could," explained former halibut and sablefish fisher Mark Lundsten at recent journalist's conference at the Property Environment Research Center in Bozeman, Montana.

Lundsten pointed out that with a 48 hour fishing season, the market was flooded with poor quality frozen fish. Processors loved the situation because the fishers had to take pretty much whatever low price the processors wanted to offer them for their catches. It was bad for the fish, bad for fishers, and bad for consumers of fresh fish. In 1995, the madness came to an end when fishers finally adopted IFQs. IFQs work by assigning rights to a percentage of a scientifically determined total annual allowable catch to specific fishers. In the case of the Alaska halibut fishery, quotas were assigned based on the best of 5 annual catches out of 7 in the years between 1984 and 1990. Twenty percent of boats were also bought out. Under the IFQs, the halibut season was expanded to 245 days, and fisher safety has greatly increased because boats can stay in port when the weather is bad. The pressure to overfish is now much less because IFQ holders understand that 1 percent of a bigger pie is better, so they leave more fish breeding in the sea so they can catch more in the future.

In the United States, IFQs are not property rights, they are "privileges" that the government can revoke on a whim. Nevertheless, fishers do buy and sell the IFQs among themselves. In fact, Lundsten eventually sold his quota and now consults with other fisheries on how to create IFQs. Because IFQs can be revoked, fishers are reluctant to invest specifically in conservation measures. However, in New Zealand where Individual Tradeable Quotas (ITQs) are owned outright by fishers, fishers spend their own money to enhance fish stocks. "We seem to always be five to ten years behind New Zealand," said Lundsten.

The Bush Administration is proposing to double the number of fisheries with IFQs from eight to sixteen by 2010. Already, many New England fishers have voiced their opposition to the plan. They correctly fear that IFQs will mean that the industry will consolidate, with more efficient fishers buying up the quotas of smaller, less efficient boats. Why the public should continue to subsidize their environmentally destructive and ultimately unsustainable way of making a living is not addressed. Not surprisingly, New England legislators eager to curry favor with voters have also said that they are against the new Bush plan. "We want there still to be fishing villages in 50 years in New England," said U.S. Rep. Tom Allen, (D-Maine) to the Associated Press.

Of course, the New England fishers and their Congressional representatives are overlooking the fact that if there are no fish left in the ocean, then there will be no New England fishing villages anyway. Just ask the Newfoundlanders.

Ronald Bailey is Reason's science correspondent. His book Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution is now available from Prometheus Books.