August 23, 2019

Who will own the oceans?

This month, Congress will consider whether to allow permanently privatizing one of America’s vital natural resources – the commercially valuable ocean fish in our coastal waters. The impending decisions about the vast, public, ocean domain will affect the whole country, but most of all those states and communities on the coast.

The federal government is charged with looking after America’s marine fisheries, which encompass all the fish species that fishermen pursue off our coasts, such as cod, tuna, and swordfish. How these fisheries are managed will determine what sort of an ocean our children inherit. Unfortunately, Congress might give away permanent, uncontrolled, private ownership of U.S. fisheries to a limited number of individuals and corporations, which could yield serious consequences for both the marine environment and our coastal fishing communities.

Already, America’s fisheries are in bad shape. Forty-three percent of the nation’s managed fish species are seriously overfished. The government has declared fisheries disasters in Alaska, on the West Coast, and here in New England.

One poorly considered proposal to fix this problem is to permanently parcel out shares of our public fisheries to private interests through Individual Fishing Quota (IFQ) programs, which give shareholders exclusive rights to the fish. But where these market-driven programs have been tried on a trial basis, they haven’t worked well. In halibut and sablefish fisheries in Alaska and the surf clam and ocean quahog fisheries on the East Coast, they have had serious drawbacks for local fishermen, the villages in which they lived, and the health of the fisheries themselves.

Since quotas can be bought and sold to the highest bidder, local fishermen – who can’t compete with deep-pocketed corporations – are almost inevitably squeezed out. While corporations amass large shares of the fishing take, traditional fishermen, their families, and communities are forced to abandon their heritage.

This is precisely what happened under the surf clam IFQ program in New Jersey, where shares have become consolidated in the hands of a few big companies. Recently, the two largest shareholders were no longer local fishermen, but rather one of the nation’s biggest accounting firms and a national bank.

Moreover, because quotas are set based on the number of fish historically caught by individual fishermen, those who tried to allow stocks to replenish by fishing responsibly are penalized, while those who fished rapaciously are rewarded. And once they have a quota, there is little incentive for IFQ shareholders to protect the ocean environment by reducing the killing of non-target fish species and avoiding damage to fish habitat.

Proponents of open-ended, unregulated IFQ programs often claim that they will result in significant conservation benefits by reducing the number of fishing vessels. But, in a typical example, under the surf clam IFQ program the number of boats in the fishery fell from 133 to 48, while the remaining boats tripled their individual catches. The primary result was not only reducing the number of fishing vessels, but also eliminating jobs for fishermen.

In 1996, Congress recognized the dangers of poorly planned IFQ programs and placed them under a four-year moratorium to allow tim to work out the flaws in the system. But while those four years slipped by, our legislators did nothing.

Obviously, Congress cannot fix the quota system before the moratorium expires on September 30. At this point the only reasonable course of action is for Congress to extend the ban another year, and quickly work to establish clear and strong national standards that would enable individual fishing quotas to be used in a fair, effective and meaningful way.

The new standards should recognize that fisheries are publicly owned resources and grant IFQs for not more than five years, after which time they may be renewed or denied, subject to satisfying defined criteria. Individuals with no financial stake in the fishery system would hold the reviews, to ensure fairness.

Congress should also require anyone holding a quota to provide additional conservation benefits to the fishery, such as avoiding catching, killing, and discarding unwanted species of fish, and protecting essential fish habitat. Furthermore, to avoid repeating what happened in New Jersey, the excessive consolidation of quotas must be prevented.

The oceans belong to all Americans, but those of us lucky enough to live near the coast bear a special responsibility for safeguarding this heritage. Having once failed to meet its own deadline, Congress needs to extend the IFQ moratorium and immediately begin working out a solid plan to preserve and protect our fisheries and our fishermen.

Peter Shelley is director of the Maine Advocacy Center for the Conservation Law Foundation. Lee Crockett is executive director of the Marine Fish Conservation Network.

Have feedback? Want to know more? Send us ideas for follow-up stories.

comments for this post are closed

You may also like