Privatizing fisheries. Sounds bad, eh? And some fishermen’s groups are making impassioned pleas against the idea.
On the other hand, some pretty smart people think it’s the way to control overfishing and make “fisherman” an occupation that’s not so way-high-up on the most-dangerous-jobs list.
This whole debate recently came home to the Fremont neighborhood of Seattle — known by locals as “the Center of the Universe,” and also the location of InvestigateWest’s “World Headquarters,” as I like to call our small office. Young environmental campaigners stood in front of the PCC Natural Markets co-op gathering signatures in front of signs warning of the demise of the family fisherman.
They’re fighting an Obama administration push to divvy up fish catches. Under the plan, the shares of a given fish catch coming out of such a division would become a property right call an Individual Fishing Quota, or IFQ. As a property right, it can be sold or traded — flying in the face of the traditional understanding of fisheries as a common resource.
This is a fight that hasn’t gotten a lot of news coverage, considering how radically it could reshape the fishing industry.
The idea of these “catch shares” being divvied up privately is getting a huge push from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, spurred by Obama’s NOAA head Jane Lubchenco, who previously served as vice chairman of the board of the Environmental Defense Fund. EDF has long championed market-based solutions to environmental problems, and with some success.
The basic theory behind IFQs is that by reserving a certain portion of the catch for each boat, the government invests each boat captain with a responsibility to fish responsibly — and safely — instead of chasing madly after fish until the mutually shared quota is reached. It’s supposed to cut way back on bycatch, to name one environmental benefit.
My erstwhile colleague Mike Lewis wrote about efforts to, as they say, “rationalize” Alaska’s king crab catch. It sounded good. In another fishery, halibut, IFQs are the reason Northwesterners can get fresh, high-quality halibut through much of the year. And to hear EDF tell it, it’s better for halibut fishermen, too.
But critics say these catch-share systems say they have concentrated the catch among large corporations, pushing out the smaller family fishermen.
Obama, Lubchenco and EDF are finding that they’ve taken on some formidable foes. Last week the well-funded Pew Environment Group urged the Obama administration to “go slow” on the idea.
And members of Congress are starting to send up flares, too.
Now Carina Barnett-Loro, an organizer with Food and Water Watch who helped staff the recent event outside PCC, tells me the group this week is trying to convince U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell to see the question as opponents do. Here’s how Barnett-Loro makes her pitch against the plan:
Catch shares are just a way of deciding who gets the fish and the way it’s being allocated, it’s all big corporations. It went from a derby system to privatization plans for pretty much every federal fishery. . . . Socially, it’s kind of the basics that fisheries are a public resource.
Zeke Grader, head of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermens’ Associations, was pithy in a recent story in the Santa Monica Daily Press:
People feel free markets and privatization will save us. Well, it didn’t save Wall Street.
Getting Cantwell’s ear would be a big step forward for the opponents of this plan, because she is chairwoman of the Senate subcommittee that governs fisheries.
Here in the Pacific Northwest, the fish we’re hearing about most in this context are rockfish, the long-lived, slow-growing and multi-hued fish found near the bottom — the rocks — off the Pacific coast.
Although many Pacific groundfish stocks have been pretty badly overfished, I can go down the street and buy fillets for something like $6 a pound. (But not at PCC. I’ve never seen this so-called “pacific snapper” for sale there.) It’s the low price that groundfish command in the market that’s the disincentive to conservation, if you ask me.
When Dateline Earth last checked in on this controversy — during the Bush administration — the Pacific Fishery Management Council had voted to go along with splitting up the catch of rockfish. It seemed sure to mean fewer boats chasing more fish. As for conservation? Hard to say.
Earlier this year the council stepped back from plans to go to IFQs for all groundfish catches. (PDF; see pages 7-8).
Nationally, it looks like now, particularly because of unhappiness among New England fishermen, this privatization push may have to wait for another day. What Sen. Cantwell has to say will be pivotal.
— Robert McClure