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. [Jane] Lubchenco's [of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] 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.
[Hat tip: reader Ray Eckhart]