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Going Green: Success stories

Pacific halibut, New Zealand rock lobster among model fisheries

Property of SeaFood Business magazine
Lisa Duchene
October 01, 2009

Ray Hilborn has been saying for years there is hope for sustainably managed global fisheries. Hilborn, professor of aquatic and fisheries science at the University of Washington, co-authored a landmark study published in late July in the journal Science with Boris Worm, a biologist at Dalhousie University, and 19 other fisheries and conservation ecology experts. 

Ironically, just three years ago, Worm predicted the collapse of global fisheries by 2048 due to overfishing. While there is still much work to be done, says the new study, scientists collectively know what is needed to turn around fisheries and there is a hopeful, global outlook. 

In a 2005 study, Hilborn and co-authors J.M. (Lobo) Orensanz and Ana M. Parma, both scientists at Centro Nacional Patagonico in Argentina, pointed to fisheries management success stories like Alaska halibut, New Zealand and Australian rock lobster, Canadian sablefish, U.S. hake and Bering Sea pollock, among others.

Sixteen years ago, more than 3,500 Alaska fishermen chased halibut for a fishing season of only 72 hours. The derby-style setup was dangerous for fishermen, didn’t make them much money and made it difficult for the market to absorb the product in such a short time period — up to 14 million pounds could hit the docks in one day. Very little could be sold fresh. Product quality suffered, as there was no time to properly ice and dress the fish.

Jim Kallander, a Cordova-based halibut fisherman and former chairman of the board at the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute (ASMI), recalls boat prices of $1 to $1.25 per pound in the early 1990s.

There had to be a better way. In 1995, the United States passed the Individual Fishing Quota System, in which fishermen like Kallander owned a share of a total quota and could fish it whenever they wanted from mid-March to mid-November. Canada had passed its own version of the management tool, called an Individual Vessel Quota System, in 1991.

Once Alaska halibut fishermen changed to the IFQ system, the fishery was transformed. The harvest stabilized and value increased. The market for fresh halibut expanded.

“That was a big breakthrough in getting [halibut] on menus throughout the country,” says Laura Fleming, ASMI spokesperson, “and in getting it in seafood cases throughout the country.”

Boat prices, says Kallander, were $5.25 per pound in 2008 and about $4.25 this year.

Now, U.S. and Canadian fishermen are catching 54 million pounds of Pacific halibut. The fish can be found on menus from white tablecloth to casual dining and in countless retail cases in the Lower 48 states. Only adding to its popularity is the fact that it is biologically and economically sustainable.

“This fishery has been generally regarded as a biological success,” writes Hilborn in the 2005 study. “Management success has been mostly credited to the ability of IPHC [International Pacific Halibut Commission] to monitor the fishery closely, to conduct a strong and independent scientific endeavor in support of management decisions and to host an open decision-making process.” 

The key players that have shown commitment to the process, says Bruce Leaman, IPHC executive director, are the U.S. and Canadian governments and fishing industries.

“The thing that has sustained management is the commitment from all parties to making halibut management work — even in tough times, there has been a willingness to make hard decisions by all parties,” says Leaman.

Data collection and scientific work have also been essential, he adds, pointing to an extensive port sampling program, a fishery-independent survey and abundance index.

Prior to the Alaska halibut fishery change, New Zealand’s rock lobster fishery was also a mess. The catch harvested near Gisborne, a city in eastern New Zealand, was falling. The stock needed rebuilding and poaching was a big problem.

A group of commercial and recreational fishermen, along with government officials and representatives from New Zealand’s indigenous Maori people, developed a plan: Deeply cut the commercial and recreational harvests and move the legal fishing season to winter. The advantage to a winter fishery was two-fold: Fewer boats on the water made it harder for poachers to pass as legitimate and lobster prices were higher.

“The higher price compensated significantly for the reduced catches,” writes Hilborn. “This program of stock rebuilding was dramatically successful. The abundance of legal-sized rock lobster increased fivefold over five years, the value of the ITQ holdings increased sixfold, and by 1999 the total quota had been increased to pre-rebuilding plan levels.”

Now, a decade later, the National Rock Lobster Management Group continues to advise New Zealand’s Minister of Fisheries on the species’ status. New Zealand’s government says most rock lobster stocks are probably at or near target levels, and the annual catch is more than 5 million pounds.

“They sell the catch and lobster fishers get good money,” says John Barrett, South Pacific specialist with New Zealand Seafoods, a Los Angeles importer. 

A small amount, 110,000 pounds worth $1.5 million, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service, was imported in 2008 into the United States for high-end white tablecloth restaurants and specialty markets willing to pay $23 a pound for frozen lobster tails. 

And while New Zealand lobster is likely to stay a tiny part of the U.S. lobster supply, it is an example of successful management. “The whole New Zealand commercial fishing industry is, relatively, a success story,” adds Barrett. “They’ve had annual catch quotas on virtually every commercial species down there for many years.” 

One common element to these success stories is that harvesters will conserve when it is in their best interest, writes Hilborn. Open-access fisheries are ripe for a disastrous situation in which a natural resource is over-exploited because no individual benefits by conserving. In a 1968 essay, scientist Garrett Hardin described this as a “Tragedy of the Commons.” 

That is not the case when there is limited entry and property rights. The same holds true, writes Hilborn, for the management structure. 

“When institutions are simple and there is direct responsibility … the managers have better incentives compared with complex organizations.” 

 

Contributing Editor Lisa Duchene lives in Bellefonte, Pa. 

 

 

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