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Going Green: The ITQ example

Scientists look to catch-share system to end overfishing

Alaska fisherman Greg Howe, captain of the F/V Keta,
    longlines for Alaska halibut. - Photo courtesy of Alaska Seafood Marketing
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 scientists.

"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 Administration (NOAA).

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 government agency.

"She brings scientific credibility and rigor to the job - and 
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 Environmental Studies.

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."

Overfishing generally means the rate of fishing exceeds what the stock can support; most 
U.S. stocks have a specific overfishing definition.

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 definition.

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 catch shares.

"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 Esty.

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 seafood.


Contributing Editor Lisa Duchene lives in Bellefonte, Pa.


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