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Study: Quota Systems Help Keep Fisheries Afloat

Thirty percent of the world's commercial fisheries have collapsed over the past few decades, so scientists, fishermen and managers have been trying to figure out how to preserve what's left — while still putting seafood on people's tables.

A new study in Science magazine finds that fishermen using a quota system are, in most cases, helping to maintain a healthy fish population.

Most fisheries operate on a simple principle: Regulators declare an opening day, and fishermen race out to catch as much as they can, as quickly as they can.


"In our Dungeness crab fishery, over 80 percent of our harvest is in the first 15 days of our season," says Geoff Bettencourt, a fourth-generation fisherman from Half Moon Bay, Calif. That race creates an incentive for more and more expensive gear — and it puts the fishermen at risk, too.

"It's just a poor, dangerous way to manage fish," Bettencourt says.

Catch-Share Management

Federal fishing regulators are talking about putting a more sane system, called catch-share, in place. Instead of racing out on opening day, fishermen would get a quota for fish that they could fill over the course of the year, and they could sell their quota if they wanted.

There's little debate that catch-share arrangements, which are used in only about 1 percent of the world's fisheries, are more profitable for fishermen. Now there's evidence that they're good for the fisheries, too.


"What was less known before our research came along was what were the ecological impacts," says Christopher Costello of the University of California, Santa Barbara. He and his team surveyed 11,000 fisheries from around the world to see whether those managed with catch-shares fared better than the ones in which fishermen simply raced to get the fish.

"We find that catch-share fisheries are about half as likely to collapse as other fisheries, and that the longer since they've been implemented, the less prone to collapse they are," he says. "So I think that this evidence is pretty strong evidence that you get not just an economic benefit, but an ecological one as well."

Tailoring The Schemes

Andrew Rosenberg, a professor of natural resources at the University of New Hampshire, says Costello and his colleagues make a compelling case that catch-share fisheries are good ecologically, as well as good for the fishermen. The hard part is putting them in place.

"They have to be developed carefully for each individual fisherman," he says. "And the reason for that is that each fishery will have different circumstances — the social conditions, the economic conditions and the ecological conditions — and so it's not as if there's a simple solution that you can say, 'OK, now we know how to do it all.'"

Bettencourt says the fishing community in Half Moon Bay is a bit wary of shifting to the annual catch-share system.

"What scares us is big business and big companies just coming in and buying up huge amounts of quota that a smaller fisherman may not have the capital to get involved with," he says.

But he, for one, figures that a catch-share system will make his community a steward for the fishery. And if it's good for the fish, it's more likely his children will be able to carry on the family business.

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