Human Journey

Catch Shares Save Fishermen and Fish

Bubba Cochrane. Photo by Mark Thein of GulfWild.

Bubba Cochrane always knew he wanted to be a fisherman. So, despite concerns from his family, he began his career as a deck-hand and eventually saved enough to buy a permit and boat of his own. He’s 43 years old now and owns a commercial fishing business out of Galveston, Texas. Business is good – but he can easily remember what fishing used to be like.

“When I got started, fishing was a race: when the season opened we fished every day until we were notified that the quota was caught. That meant lots of fishing all at once, a glut of fish in the market, and bad prices when we got back to the docks,” said Bubba, reminiscing about his early days in the fishery.

Through the mid-2000s, the red snapper fishery was on the brink of collapse. Even with so few fish in the population and a short season, the fishing derbies meant that the price at the dock stayed low, hurting the profits of commercial fishermen. Fishery managers tried to address the price problem by breaking up the season into the first 15, then 10 days of each month. Fishermen would fish for 10 days, and then wait until the next month to go out again.

These sporadic openings were not the solution fishermen like Bubba wanted. “It’s hard to run your business in just the first 15 days of a month; a lot can get in the way. I tell people to imagine a gas station only being able to sell gas for the first ten days of each month or a contractor only being able to build houses in that short window.”

The pressure on Bubba’s business and his way of life was intense. “A derby is really stressful – you’re worried about the weather or if you get sick or even hurt. And it means you miss a lot of birthdays and holidays with your family, because when fishing is open you’d better be on the water.”

In the derby fishery, being safe was a luxury Cochrane could not afford. “Good weather was a bad thing. If the weather was good, the price was bad because everyone was fishing.”

This all changed in 2007, when the commercial red snapper fishery implemented an individual fishing quota (IFQ) program, a form of catch share.

Fisheries in the United States are managed under a system called catch limits. A catch limit is a scientifically-based cap on the number of fish that can be harvested from a fishery each year in order to keep the stock healthy for future seasons. Catch share programs, at its most basic, give exclusive fishing rights to commercial fishers to harvest a specific percentage of the total catch limit. When a boat hits its individual quota for the year, it has to quit fishing unless it is able to lease or buy quota from another boat in the same fishery. Catch shares take the pressure to race to catch fish off of the commercial fishermen, letting them fish their quota year-round. In turn, it stabilizes the price of their catch and gives them the power to make business decisions that are best for them (instead of being hostage to a limited open season).

For Bubba it sounded like another band-aid that wouldn’t solve the problem. That was until he attended a workshop to learn about how catch shares work. “I was worried about being able to catch enough. Then I learned you could buy and lease quota.” Bubba was able to find a seller and purchased more quota for his business.

“Because the price has stabilized and even increased from before the IFQ, I’m making more for my catch and spending less to catch it, because I’m not always racing to go out.”

Since the implementation of the catch share program in the commercial red snapper fishery, the value of the commercial fishery has gone up 150 percent.  Reports from other fishermen echo Bubba’s – they are making more and spending less to catch fish.

For conservation, the results are clear. The fish population has increased enough to warrant a 60 percent increase in the catch limit. Discarded or wasted fish have been reduced dramatically. Because commercial fishermen can catch red snapper year-round, they are throwing less overboard. That means more fish in the ocean for commercial and recreational fishermen.

“Catch shares taught me about stewardship. I know what sustainability means and I believe in it,” said Cochrane. “There’s a future for the fishery. Most older fishermen would have never let their kids get into fishing. I have a nine-year-old son; before the IFQ I would have pushed him from fishing, now I’m encouraging him to become a fisherman some day.”

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Miguel Angel Jorge is the Managing Director of 50in10, working to expand the organization's network of stakeholders, facilitate knowledge sharing about sustainable fisheries management, and help design and support collaborative fishery restoration programs implemented by the organization's partners around the world. Before joining 50in10, Miguel was Director of the National Geographic Society’s Ocean Initiative, which strives to restore the ocean’s health and productivity. He joined NGS in February of 2010. Previously Miguel worked as Director of WWF-International’s Marine Program, where he oversaw the their global strategies on fisheries and seafood, shipping and high-seas conservation policy. Before that Miguel worked extensively in Latin America and the Caribbean on marine, freshwater conservation and large-scale conservation planning processes, in the Gulf of California, Galapagos and Mesoamerican Reef. In his early career, Miguel worked in a wide array of areas, from aquaculture to refugee camp conflict mediator, to delegate at UN meetings. A native of Cuba, he has also lived in the US, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic and Switzerland. Miguel has a Masters in Marine Policy and a Bachelor’s in Aquatic Biology.
  • Meredith Moore

    Catch shares are a fishery privatization scheme that promise increased economic efficiency but deliver it at the cost of fishermen’s jobs. These programs are inherently intended to reduce the number of fishermen who can access a public resource. Suggesting they are good for fishermen is laughable.

    A year ago, Food & water Watch looked at the changes catch shares have brought to the fisheries in the Gulf of Mexico. We found significant consolidation and job losses as well as an inherent inability for the program to limit fish discards and adapt to natural stock fluctuations. That full report can be found here

    A better solution to fisheries management is to retain control of the resource in the public sector and administer it fairly, instead of creating private markets that destroy traditional fishing opportunities.

  • Mark Duiven

    In the face of declining abundance and competition between sectors for fish (usually commercial vs sport or commercial sport fisheries) quota systems are the most rational way of managing access. Derby fisheries work in situations of large biomasses with management plans that are (or were) based on relative abundance and production driven marketing (canned salmon – historically). When biomass declines and government management priorities are forced to conservation – derby fisheries are done.

    Quota fisheries must be balanced by rules – if not regulations – that limit corporate concentration and have real teeth and disclosure rules relating to the beneficial ownership of quota.

    Derby or quota, globalist thinkers – whether in the sport or commercial sectors – will attempt to control and commodify everything. We have seen this already in BC around the control of sport access (rod days).

    The real problems in the fishery need to be resolved at the local level in collaboration with good management data and resource managers of good reputation and integrity

    When these issues decline to a reliance on Foundation sponsored research and field science with Foundation driven agendas all of this blows out the window as so much pollyanna blather.

    Local resources should always be for local people – the globalists and their lackey running dogs get GMO tofu from Monsanto for their troubles – much good may it do you.

  • Thomas Hilton

    If the red snapper IFQ program is so great, why can’t it sustain itself without burdening the American Taxpayer for its enforcment/management to the tune of almost $2 million per year? Catch shares gift a portion of our Public Trust Resource to a select few enviro-funded individuals/corporations so that they may profit personally from the harvest of our Public Trust Resource, with virtually no benefit to the fish, the coastal communities, or the nation. If they insist on using catch shares, they should be leased, annually by the fisherman doing the fishing directly from the government. Right now, catch shares are nothing more than a fishermen’s retirement program, where they can sit back and lease their quota to other fishermen without doing a damn thing.

    Organizations such as the Gulf of Mexico Reef Fish Shareholders Alliance and the Charter Fisherman’s Association are nothing more than shell organizations of their mother corporation; The Environmental Defense Fund (EDF). EDF has funded/created these so-called fishermen’s organizations to act as a front group to push their catch share agenda to give the illusion that fishermen actually support the concept.

    The Gulf Council sought public comment on introducing the concept into the Gulf recreational fisheries, but they got a resounding NO! to the tune of 95% AGAINST the idea.

  • Captain Henry

    Catch Shares have caused more devistation in Fisheries and Fishing Communities than good. Take the Hundred Million dollar New England Fishery Disastor that came as a direct result of Catch Shares. Massive job loss, bankrupted Business’s, and ZERO fish saved. Oh yead in the last 4 years alone the US Taxpayer has shelled out hundreds of millions to manage, promote, enforce and monitor the scheme. Meanwhile Science and research budgets in the fisheries have dried up as a result! It may make a few people rich, but does nothing for the fishery, and has cost thousands everything. It little more than a Pyrmid scheme based management, much like its “Cap and Trade” counterpart. Time to get Special Interest Groups out of the process, and MANDATE that ONLY Reliable Science Based Data be used to manage fisheries. The Guesswork and Economic drivers used now are hurting both the fisheries and fishing communities as a whole.

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