Catch Shares in the Chesapeake Bay and Beyond
By Libby Warner
On our visit to Antipoison Creek, we met with a fisherman who spoke somewhat highly of catch share programs. Afterwards, I investigated the purpose of catch share programs as well as the pros and cons of their implementation.
Catch share programs were originally developed in the United States to promote the economic and environmental stability of fisheries. In 1976, the federal government officially acknowledged that overfishing was a national issue and passed the Magnuson Steven’s Act. This created regional councils to manage fishing practices in different parts of the country. The act was first amended in 1996 with the Sustainable Fisheries Act. This amendment limited fisheries to only fishing during certain times of the year, a method referred to as derby fishing. Fishermen would fish as much as they could during the limited time frame, which resulted in increases in overfishing, illegal poaching, and competition and conflict between recreational and commercial fishermen. There were also several negative economic impacts associated with derby fishing. In 2006, the Magnuson Steven’s Act was amended with the Fishery Conservation and Management Reauthorization Act, which installed various catch share programs throughout the country.
In regions with catch share programs, including the Chesapeake Bay, a total maximum number of allowable catch is instated per annum for a particular species of fish. Individual fishermen and companies are then assigned a TAC, or total allowable catch, a quota based on the number of fish each company caught in the past. Many question the fairness of quotas decided in this fashion. However, the incentive of catch share programs is to limit the amount of fish caught overall rather than limiting the time of year fish can be caught.
In addition to limiting total catch, there are a number of benefits associated with catch share programs. For instance, since the implementation of catch share programs, the Chesapeake Bay, along with other bodies of water throughout the country, have seen a decrease in the number of discards and ghost fish, (fish that get caught in equipment and either die or are lost). There have also been improvements in fishermen safety. During the derby fishing days, fishing was one of the most dangerous jobs in the country. Due to time constraints, fishermen would rush out to catch fish despite poor weather conditions. With the removal of time constraints, catch share programs have provided more full-time jobs, rather than part-time jobs as fishermen now have a year-round season.
Another benefit of catch share fishing is that it increases the quality of fish caught. Since companies own portions of fish stock, they are often more invested in taking care of their stock. Being free to fish any time of year results in fishermen focusing on quality rather than quantity of fish caught. This is especially beneficial for the health of local people who rely on fish as a primary source of protein.
Whether or not catch share programs have actually made fishing more environmentally sustainable is still up for debate. Many argue that proof of success includes rebounds of fish populations across the country, including blue king crab, snow crab, Pacific coast widow rockfish, Atlantic windowpane flounder, and Gulf of Mexico red snapper. While the government has been able to increase total catch limits over time, showing proof of sustainability, many also argue that it is difficult to determine whether or not the rebounds in fish populations are a direct result of catch share programs. Many environmental activists are opposed to catch shares because it is essentially a privatization of public resources. Fishing companies are allowed to trade or sell quota, which results in armchair fishermen, (large fishing companies who sell quota to smaller companies and receive a portion of the profit). Large companies are now more capable of taking over the industry and owning most of the shares. Grassroots environmental activists use the phrase “corporate industrialization of fisheries” to describe the large fishing companies that are becoming monopolies in the fishing world. This is potentially problematic because large corporations in a capitalist society do not always rank environmental interests as a priority. Additionally, although catch share programs have resulted in a shift from part-time jobs to full-time jobs, overall, the monopoly aspect of catch shares has decreased the total number of jobs available.
Catch share programs approach conservation by focusing on individual species of fish rather than looking at aquatic ecosystems as a whole. Many environmental activists argue that the real issue is that, worldwide, there are currently approximately five times as many boats fishing as would be needed to catch a sustainable number of fish. With the implementation of catch share programs, fishermen often respond by simply moving to other parts of the world. Therefore, the total number of fish caught worldwide may not be reduced.
Catch shares are just as controversial in the Chesapeake Bay. Ten years ago, Virginia installed a catch share program in the Bay for striped bass, a population that had been overfished. After the catch share implementation, Virgina has been able to sustainably manage the striped bass population. To implement this program, NOAA provided educational sessions for striped bass fishermen to learn about catch shares and aided fishermen in the transition process from derby fishing to catch share fishing. From an original catch season of three months, the government extended the harvest period for striped bass to eleven months. The Virginia program has also allowed fisheries to be more economically successful.
Another positive result of catch share programs in Virginia is the development of “Chesapeake Catch.” Chesapeake Catch is a smartphone application developed for fishermen in the Bay, allowing them to log their catch and view data regarding other fish caught in the Bay. This has been a successful way for fishermen to come together and communicate within the industry.
Maryland took longer to implement the catch share program for striped bass; a total allowable catch was not instituted until 2014. Catch shares in both Maryland and Virginia have received criticism for putting small fishermen out of business. Throughout the Bay region, many fishermen, particularly smaller family businesses, complain that catch shares have changed their traditional fishing techniques, and allowed larger fishing corporations to control the small companies.
With striped bass being Maryland’s state fish and it’s third most valuable seafood industry, the catch share program implementation for striped bass in Maryland is very significant. Despite the complaints, since the program began, striped bass populations have improved and overfishing has declined in both Maryland and Virginia.
After exploring the different stances people take toward catch shares, and examining the pros and cons of this fishing technique, I have come to the conclusion that overfishing is an extremely complicated issue with no simple solution. It is still relatively unclear whether or not these programs are environmentally sustainable on a global scale. Catch share programs, however, seem to be effective in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Although there are may be short-term economic downsides to catch shares, there have been ecological benefits in the Chesapeake region.