« September 2009 Table of Contents
Going Green: The ITQ example
Scientists look to catch-share system to end overfishing
By Lisa Duchene
September 01, 2009
How local is your fish? Customers are increasingly asking
this question. Growing demand for local food is expected to
reach $7 billion in 2011, according to Packaged Facts, a
Rockville, Md., market research firm.
"Local," says Packaged Facts, often means grown within 250
miles or a day's drive of point-of-sale and tends to be
relative. So in landlocked markets, local seafood probably
means caught off any U.S. coast.
The sustainability of that U.S. harvest is poised to
improve, offering buyers more environmentally responsible,
domestic options like Alaska halibut and New England scallops.
A government mandate to end overfishing, new policy approach
and new leadership are so far getting the thumbs-up from marine
"We can't cover the entire U.S. market with domestic
landings, even including aquaculture. But we can get a lot
closer," says Andrew Rosenberg, professor of Natural Resources
and the Environment at the University of New Hampshire and a
former deputy director of the National Marine Fisheries Service
(NMFS), part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric
Fisheries experts like Rosenberg are applauding the
appointment of Jane Lubchenco, who took office in April as head
of NOAA. The former marine biologist at Oregon State University
is the first woman and first marine ecologist to lead the
"She brings scientific credibility and rigor to the job -
a real commitment to sustainability as a core value," says
Daniel Esty, Hillhouse professor of environmental law and
policy at Yale University's School of Forestry and
Also, for the first time, the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery
Conservation and Management Act, updated in 2007, requires NMFS
to end overfishing in U.S. waters by 2010.
The Magnuson Act "doesn't allow much wiggle room on that,"
says James Balsiger, acting administrator for NMFS. "We were
focused on that anyway, as a fisheries service and the
[regional] councils were focused on it. I think we would have
gotten there for the major species."
"I think we have turned the corner," adds Balsiger. "We will
have sustainable fisheries. I think we will end
Overfishing generally means the rate of fishing exceeds what
the stock can support; most
U.S. stocks have a specific
In early August, NMFS reported the status of 230
commercially important U.S. stocks as of the second quarter.
For about 19 percent of those stocks (42 stocks), the status is
either unknown or the agency has not set an overfishing
For the remaining 188 stocks (or about 81 percent of the 230
tracked stocks), NMFS reports that overfishing is happening on
about 21 percent of them, or 39 stocks. That means the rate of
fishing is for now considered to be OK on 80 percent of the
stocks with a known status (or 64 percent of the 230
commercially important stocks).
Those stocks subject to overfishing include eight in New
England, black sea bass in the Mid-Atlantic, 10 stocks in the
South Atlantic, five in the Gulf of Mexico (including red
snapper and pink shrimp) and five in the Caribbean.
To help meet its deadline, NMFS is making catch shares a
cornerstone of its fisheries management policy.
"The administration finds some of the market-based drivers
of those kinds of systems as quite appealing," says Balsiger,
"and recent scientific papers show that fisheries managed by
catch shares programs tend to stay sustainable."
Under catch shares, fishermen or companies purchase and own
a share or guarantee of the fishery's total catch, set each
year by scientists at a level to allow the stock to be healthy.
When the quota is reached, fishing stops.
Alaska halibut, managed under an Individual Transferable
Quota (ITQ) system since 1995, is considered a model
catch-share fishery. The approach has widespread support among
conservationists and scientists as a management tool that's
been more effective than a traditional, open-access system.
It's also credited with leading to more consistent supply and
preventing the dockside gluts of fish and safety hazards that
come with derby-style fishing.
Lubchenco, Rosenberg and Esty were among a 23-member working
group of fisheries policy experts and scientists that
co-authored the "Oceans of Abundance" report, released in
November 2008, calling on the Obama administration to adopt
"The focus on catch shares signals a willingness to take up
new policy approaches and to try to use the new incentive
structures to move toward greater sustainability," says
A NOAA task force appointed in late June is evaluating use
of catch shares in all U.S. fisheries.
New England's groundfish industry has begun the transition
to the catch-share system, scheduled to take effect in May
2010. Nineteen "sectors," or fishing cooperatives, will have to
submit a plan of how they will allocate their share of the
quota among members along with their planned fishing method and
areas, according to the New England Fishery Management Council,
which adopted the plan in late June.
Bill Gerencer, buyer for M.F. Foley and member of the
council's groundfish advisory panel, winces at the
privatization of New England's fisheries. But, he says, after
years of trying one failed approach after another, if that's
what it will take for the region's groundfish stocks to fully
recover, and if it means better science behind setting catch
limits, then he's all for it.
NOAA has announced $16 million to help New England's
commercial fishing industry transition to catch shares, $6
million for cooperative research projects involving both
fishermen and scientists and $10 million to develop data
reporting and fishery monitoring systems to track the fishery
in real time.
"The efforts to rethink U.S. fisheries policy will bear
fruit in the coming months," predicts Esty. And that's great
news for buyers working to meet demand for local, sustainable
Contributing Editor Lisa Duchene lives in Bellefonte,