Could Privatization Have Prevented the 77 Percent Cut in New England's Cod Fishery?


The New England cod fishery has essentially collapsed from annual landings of 18,000 metric tons in the early 1990s to around 4,000 tons in recent years. And marine biologists believe the situation is getting worse. Consequently, the New York Times is reporting:

… New England Fishery Management Council voted to recommend reductions of 77 percent from last year's catch for each of the next three years for cod in the Gulf of Maine.

It also recommended cuts of 61 percent from last year for one year only to the cod catch on Georges Bank, a vast area off Cape Cod, which was named for the fish. The council's recommendations are subject to approval by the federal government, which is expected to put them in place by May 1.

Such deep cuts will decimate the local fishing fleets and the jobs that depend upon them. This situation might well have been avoided had local fishers agreed earlier to privatize the fishery. A recent study in Science once again showed that allocating catch-shares to fishers—giving a percentage of the catch to individual fishers—prevents overfishing that leads to the collapse of fisheries. Over at the Harvard Business Review, Environmental Defense Fund vice-president Eric Pooley explains how catch shares helped improve the red snapper fishery in the Gulf of Mexico: 

… fishermen would be allocated shares based on their catch history (the average amount of fish in pounds they landed each year) of the scientifically determined amount of fish allowed for catch each year (the catch limit). Fishermen could then fish within their shares, or quota, all year long, giving them the flexibility they needed to run their businesses.

This meant no more fishing in dangerously bad weather and no more market gluts. For the consumer, it meant fresh red snapper all year long.

After five years of catch share management, the Gulf of Mexico red snapper fishery is growing because fishermen are staying within the scientific limits. Boats that once suffered from ever-shortening seasons have seen a 60% increase in the amount of fish they are allowed to catch. Having a percentage share of the fishery means fishermen have a built-in incentive to husband the resource, so it will continue to grow (emphasis added).

The unfortunate truth is that privatizing fisheries never occurs until they near collapse. Fishers evidently believe that they are more canny than their competitors and can always find enough fish for themselves; so they fiercely resist efforts to privatize old-fashioned open-access fish-killing regimes. It is also always the case that too many fishers are pursuing too few fish and that means that some will have to find other work to do.

A catch-share system was finally established in New England and it was working. As Pooley notes:

From 2009 to 2011, groundfish landings were up six percent, revenues for fishermen were up 18% and discards were reduced by two-thirds. But all is not well there. Warming Atlantic waters are leading to migration changes and increases in predator species that prey on cod and compete for food….In New England, catch shares have kept a difficult situation from becoming even worse.

In fact, last year sea surface temperatures off the northeastern coast of the U.S. reached record highs which seems to be driving whatever cod remain further north away from New England. If this warming trend continues, not even catch shares will restore New England's cod fishery.

For more background on the trials and tribulations of privatizing fisheries see my posts, "Give a Man a Fishery and Soon You'll Have More Fish," and "How to Save New England's Fishing Villages."