Catch Shares

This is a column from Robert Montgomery for ESPN Outdoors. As a Senior Writer for BASS Publications, Montgomery has written about conservation, environment, and access issues for more than two decades.

If you're a recreational angler, Catch Shares are coming to a fishery near you.

As it did with creation of the National Ocean Council, the Obama Administration is following an agenda set by green groups. This time around, that means expanding a management strategy for ocean fisheries that critics say is inherently anti-fishing and really is more about big-government intrusion into the sport than caring for the resource.

Some also charge that, at its worst, Catch Shares is a variation of a much discredited cap-and-trade energy policy, in which government limits access and gives away a public resource for commercial profit by a few.

But at least the latest news is good. With the release recently of its Catch Shares policy, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and its administrator, Dr. Jane Lubchenco, seem to be heeding the concerns of sportfishing advocates.

"It's clear that NOAA's leadership was listening at its Recreational Fishing Summit last April when the entire spectrum of the recreational angling community, from guides to tackle manufacturers to charter boat operators, voiced its apprehension regarding this policy," said Mike Nussman, president and CEO of the American Sportfishing Association (ASA). "A number of significant improvements called for by participants at that summit and in subsequent dialogue with the agency are reflected in this document."

Jeff Angers, president of the Center for Coastal Conservation, added, "This new policy shows a dramatic improvement over where the administration was when it started. The draft policy showed that the agency did not understand recreational fishing.

"We brought to their attention the problems that we saw, and, to their credit, they addressed most of our concerns."

That "we" includes the ASA, the Billfish Foundation, the Coastal Conservation Association, the International Game Fish Association, and the National Marine Manufacturers Association.

It does not include the Recreational Fishing Alliance, which remains adamantly opposed to Catch Shares.

"We've fought too hard and for too long to keep this Catch Shares policy out of our sector. We cannot let NOAA continue to ramrod this policy through (regional fishery management) councils in direct contradiction to the wishes of our fishing community," said Jim Donofrio, executive director. "Clearly our federal bureaucracy is not listening to the will of the people."

Angers pointed out, however, that NOAA, along with its National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) and eight regional councils, used Catch Shares in commercial and mixed (commercial and recreational) fisheries for 20 years before Lubchenco took over. She then decided to expand the management strategy advocated by her friends and former associates at the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF).

"We don't have to like Catch Shares," he said. "But we have to live with it, and we want to make it better."

In announcing the new policy, NOAA's Monica Medina said, "The purpose of this policy is to provide a strong foundation for the widespread consideration of Catch Shares, which have proven to be an effective tool to help rebuild fisheries. The key to a successful catch share program is extensive stakeholder involvement in the design of Catch Shares that take into consideration each community's particular fishing traditions and goals."

What are Catch Shares and why are they bad for recreational fishing? In short, they make not only the fish but the fishing itself a commodity. Then the government, via NOAA, NMFS, and the councils, distributes the rights to that commodity as it sees fit. It decides who can fish and who cannot.

Traditionally, this management tool has been used primarily for commercial fisheries, along with a few mixed, such as for snowy grouper in the South Atlantic.

In that context, "catch share programs set a biologically based annual catch limit for each fish stock and allocate a specific portion of that catch limit to entities, such as commercial fishermen and cooperatives or communities," ASA explained. "When designed correctly, catch share programs help eliminate the commercial race to fish, reduce overcapacity and by-catch, and improve economic efficiency."

Shares can be used, sold, or leased for the right to harvest a set percentage of the yearly allocation for a fish stock.

Historically, once that allocation was set, it rarely, if ever, was changed, with the number of shares locked in as well.

That aspect of Catch Shares was one of the most troubling for Angers and others in the coalition. They pointed out that using this tool for recreational angling would trap a potentially infinite number of fishermen into chasing a stagnant allotment of fish, resulting in shorter seasons and tighter restrictions.

Considering that sports anglers harvest less than 5 percent of saltwater finfish, yet contribute just as much to the nation's economy as commercial fishing (more than $80 billion annually), utilizing Catch Shares in a recreational fishery seems exactly the wrong thing to do. It would both discourage participation and cost coastal communities millions of dollars, while doing nothing to "rebuild" fisheries.

"Our No. 1 victory seems to be that the new policy says that Catch Shares has no place in recreational only fisheries," Angers said.

The new policy asserts:

NOAA will support the design and implementation of catch share programs for the recreational charter and head boat sectors where appropriate, but does not advocate the use of individual private angler catch shares. However, NOAA will support Councils in the identification and application of innovative management measures that both promote individual recreational angler fishing access and foster sustainable fisheries.

"Also, the way we read the policy, before a new Catch Shares plan can be put in place (for mixed fisheries) reallocations must be made and those allocations must be periodically re-examined," Angers continued.
"When nothing but historic allocations were being used (for Catch Shares) the gates were rusted shut for recreational anglers. Now, we have a bat that councils can use so allocations can be made to benefit anglers and economies."

Angers is hopeful that this bat will help change management of the red snapper fishery in the Gulf, which lopsidedly favors commercial fishing. Forty-nine percent goes to recreational anglers and 51 percent to commercials, with a total allowed harvest annually of about 5 million pounds.

"You have 2 million recreational anglers who buy fuel, bait, tackle, boats, and other stuff, getting less than half, and you have about 300 commercials getting the rest," he said. "Commercials can fish all year long, as close to shore as they want. And it's their guaranteed right. Recreational anglers have a season that's less than 60 days.

"How is that fair?"

Improved equity could be achieved by reallocation or by purchase. In voicing its concerns to the administration about mixed fisheries, the coalition said that a system should be put into place that allows the recreational sector to buy shares from the commercial sector.

NOAA seems to have agreed:

The entity could increase the amount of fish in the pool by transfers of shares from other sectors as long as share transferability was allowed by the Council and other program requirements were met.

But bureaucrats are experts at ambiguity. As with so much of this Catch Shares policy, actions will speak louder than words.

One troubling aspect of Catch Shares remains Lubchenco's ties to EDF (board of trustees) and its relentless push for implementation in the ocean's fisheries.

"Could this mega-push for Catch Shares by EDF be nothing more than an attempted economic windfall for a certain few investors? Is it all about the money and not conserving the resource?" asked Capt. Len Belaro in the Big Game Fishing Journal.

Representing the American Alliance of Fishermen and their communities in New England, Tina Jackson said, "Catch Shares are just another name for privatization. They don't help to improve the health of fish stocks. They are not a conservation tool. They are an economic tool."

And there's the troubling fact that EDF, with NOAA encouragement, is promoting "sector separation" in the recreational sector. In other words, Catch Shares for a recreational fishery would be subdivided between private anglers and for-hire charter boats. Critics charge that it's a "divide and conquer" strategy for weakening opposition to Catch Shares among recreational anglers.

In voicing opposition, CCA listed the following reasons:

• Sector separation will create imbalances in distribution of fish among anglers fishing from private boats and those fishing on charter vessels.

• Sector separation will create deep political conflicts within states as decision-makers grapple with how to spread fishing opportunities between private and charter sectors.

• State fisheries directors will have to seriously consider how sector separation will influence the growth in licensed anglers and fishing opportunities in their states.

• Sector separation will result in a shorter public season for most offshore fishing. Private boat anglers will often be unable to pursue many species unless they pay a charter/for-hire vessel.

How that will play out has yet to be determined, as have many other aspects involving Catch Shares. To keep informed, check out the Center for Coastal Conservation's web site at www.coastalconservation.us. NOAA's Catch Shares policy can be found at www.nmfs.noaa.gov/sfa/domes_fish/catchshare/index.htm.