At the intersection of marine conservation and social, economic, environmental and food justice

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Reject Distractions; Fix Catch Shares Now

This post comes to us from Brett Tolley, NAMA's community organizer. The original content appeared in the September edition of Commercial Fisheries News.

Three years ago I sat amongst a group of fishermen testifying that the new catch share program in New England was not working and needed to be fixed. The fleet was consolidating, access was becoming unaffordable to independent people, and too much pressure was hitting the inshore fishing areas. Several members of the New England Fishery ManagementCouncil along with lobbyists, who support catch share ideology, denied these problems. 

Not surprisingly, these problems have yet to be fixed. 

Advocates of the catch share approach promised higher prices to fishermen, better stewardship over the ocean, and a general improvement in fishermen’s livelihoods. Instead we’re seeing an unaffordable quota leasing market where, for example, George’s Bank Cod (east) leased last year for an average cost of $2.48/pound while the average ex-vessel price to the boat was $1.08/pound. 

We’re seeing non owner-operator companies control upwards of 23% of access to a single fish species. Younger fishermen can't afford entry into the fishery. And we’re seeing the program incentivize a heavy shift of fishing effort onto near shore waters leaving inshore-dependent fishermen without fish to catch.

Fisherman Kevin McDonough testified to what 
few opportunities there are for younger fishermen.

How did we get here?

These problems aren’t unique to New England. In fact, many fishermen and researchers predicted these outcomes. Back in 1990 the first US Catch Share program - then called Individual Transferable Quotas or ITQs - began with the Surf Clam and Ocean Quahog fishery in the mid-Atlantic region. In a few short years the fishery, which previously had supported many owner-operators, was transformed into one controlled by just three multi-national corporations. Last year Lion Capital, a British private equity firm, paid $980 million to acquire Bumble Bee Foods and Bumble Bee’s subsidiary Snow’s Inc, which included the exclusive property rights to 23% of the United States’ clams. 

The Center for Investigative Reporting created this video 
which provides an overview of how catch share programs work.

Similar patterns have occurred in Iceland, New Zealand, Namibia, and many other countries around the world. In the case of Iceland, the Catch Share program had nothing to show in terms of rebuilding the fish stocks and meanwhile was undermining fishing community infrastructure and jobs. Fishermen took their grievances all the way to the United Nations Human Rights Committee and they won! In 2007 the UN ruled that privatization violated the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and soon afterwards the Icelandic government began a process to dismantle the program.

Who is behind the push for Catch Shares?

The broad strategy of implementing Catch Shares is ideologically driven and is backed by a unique alliance of conservative, free-market advocates as well as foundation-funded environmental groups.

The Walton Family Foundation of Walmart, for example, spent $20 million in 2012 for the sole purpose of promoting Catch Share programs with an explicit goal of commoditizing seafood into a global market that values high-volume, low-value ‘efficient’ fisheries. You know… the same ones that charge a fisherman $2.48/lb for the rights to fish and pays them $1.08 for that fish when they bring to shore. Its no wonder the fishermen keep saying we need more fish. If you’re told the only way to make ends meet is with volume not value what would you do? 

As I've written elsewhere with professor Seth Macinko at the University of Rhode Island, the core assumption of Catch Share ideology is that if we turn fisheries access into private property, than we’ll take better care of the fish. The problem of course, is that the fisheries already have an owner – the American public. The idea that private owners will automatically act as stewards to preserve their assets was proven dramatically na├»ve by the world financial crisis of 2008. Why should we assume now that what is bad for banks will then be good for fish?

Others who defend Catch Share ideology include the likes of the Koch brothers and the Charles Koch Foundation who have teamed up with organizations such as the Environmental Defense Fund to heavily fund campaigns to promote Catch Shares.

With pressure and financial backing like that, its no wonder fishermen and allies in New England face such extreme resistance when seeking policy fixes to very clear problems that affect both the health of the ocean and fishing livelihoods.

Reforming Catch Shares

There is an increasing number of brave fishermen, Council members, and others who continue to shed light on the problems associated with catch shares and to offer solutions moving forward, including limits on quota accumulation, safeguards for inshore fishing areas, and more transparency on ownership trends. However, as more fishermen speak out, we’re hearing more and more about backlash from supporters of Catch Shares, where vocal fishermen are getting cut out of the leasing market, bullied out on the water, or socially ostracized.

Fisherman, Ron Borjeson, testifies to the NE Council 
about the impact of current policies and the need to ensure 
the scale of fisheries matches the scale of the marine ecosystem.

Amendment 18, the main policy vehicle to fix things, will be discussed October 1 at a NE Council meeting. Three years ago I recall the National Marine Fisheries Service announcing the heart-wrenching news that cod catch would be cut to disastrously low numbers. In typical fashion, some Council members took advantage of the news in order to distract from dealing with Amendment 18. I heard several Council members liken the situation to a tsumani that would surely take the entire fleet under and therefore we didn’t need any action at that time on Amendment 18. Today we’re receiving similar news about the cod stocks and already Council members are making similar claims to avoid or delay consideration of reform proposals.

Fisherman BG Brown shares how current policy is 
reducing opportunity for independent, owner-operator 
fishermen, and those with the lowest carbon footprint.

The real tsunami here is a global strategy to transform fisheries from publicly managed access into privatized property, effectively displacing independent family fishermen (those with the smallest ecological footprint), placing enormous pressure on the marine environment (including the cod stocks!), and ultimately turning fish into commodities for the global market.

We in New England can tip the scales away from policies that privatize the public commons and consolidate the fishing industry.  For the sake of current and future generations of fish and fishermen, the council must proceed to a vote on Amendment 18 to identify the best alternatives to a flawed system and protect the fisheries as a public trust.

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