West Coast Fishery Moves To Market-Based System

Beginning in January, fishermen in California, Washington and Oregon will become owners of a percentage of their catch. Just like shares in the stock market, shares of fish can be traded or sold. But several fishermen's groups say this "catch share" system could be easily manipulated.

Decades of overfishing and lawsuits have plagued the fishing industry on the West Coast, so starting in January, fishermen in California, Oregon and Washington will be working under a new system.

Geoff Bettencourt, a fourth-generation fisherman in Half Moon Bay in California, is part of this new system, which will allow fishermen to own "catch shares."

It came about because of a requirement that fishermen not exceed catch limits for each species of fish. They have been throwing the rest of that particular kind of fish back in the water. Most don't survive being thrown back, however, and federal fishery managers say that wasted fish makes a fishery unsustainable.

Under the catch-share system, fishery managers set an overall catch limit at the beginning of the season. Each fisherman will own a percentage of that catch. Just like shares in the stock market, the quotas can be traded or sold. The idea is that a market-based system will give fishermen more flexibility.

"Like, you could have two different trawlers, and they could just trade species so they both could have a better living. Each guy can tune his business more finely to what he does," Bettencourt says.

The catch share "creates accountability for every single fish. When that fish comes on the boat, whether you like it or not, it's yours," Bettencourt says.

But Larry Collins, president of the Crab Boat Owners Association in San Francisco, is doubtful.

"I don't have a real good feeling about market-based solutions," Collins says. The Crab Boat Owners Association is one of the groups that has filed a lawsuit to stop catch shares on the West Coast. Collins is concerned that a market-based system will bring market manipulation. Under the rules, you don't have to be a fisherman to buy fish quotas, so it's possible that speculators or even environmental groups could buy into the market.

"You want hedge fund managers deciding when the people catch fish? Is that who you want to own your fish, or do you want to own them?" Collins asks.

Collins is also concerned about fishermen who make smaller catches. In Alaskan fisheries that use catch shares, some smaller boats opted to sell their fish quotas.

"That concentrated the resource in fewer and fewer hands. Now, I tend to think that public trust resources should be used to employ as many people as possible," he says.

"There will be some consolidation. There should be some consolidation, in fact," says William Stelle with the National Marine Fisheries Service, the agency that oversees the fishery. "We've got too many boats chasing too few fish, and that's why nobody's making any money."

Stelle says they've put in market caps to prevent anyone from controlling too much of the overall catch. For fisherman Geoff Bettencourt, it's the idea of ownership that may change the fishery the most.

"Well, when the government owned it, nobody cared. But now when that guy owns it, he really wants to make sure that fish is in good shape -- 'cause part of it's his," he says.

More than a dozen other U.S. fisheries are trying out catch shares, where they've also met with opposition. But fishery managers say that in places like Alaska, where catch shares have been in place for several years, fishermen are now getting higher prices for their catch. Copyright 2010 KQED Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit http://www.kqed.org.

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