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1 April 2011 We Cannot Stay the Course

In her article on catch shares fisheries management (BioScience 60: 780-785), Sharon Levy quotes four people who equate catch shares with private property. She then questions the idea that property rights for fish create incentives for stewardship.

There are two problems with this question. First, while the nature and strength of the privilege created under catch shares varies among countries, catch shares are not property rights. They are defined in US federal law as resource use privileges and that definition has held up in the courts. Moreover, catch shares are part of a social contract that demands many serious responsibilities in return for the catch privilege, including accountability to conservation and management measures.

The second problem is that the most appropriate measure of catch share effectiveness is not whether they create incentives for stewardship, but whether they result in desirable fishery performance. There is strong evidence that catch shares do improve performance, including higher compliance with conservation standards such as allowable catch levels, reductions in gear deployment, less discarding of fish and other wildlife, dramatically improved safety, reduced fishing costs, and increased revenues.

Levy also suggests throughout her piece that catch shares are based on a belief in “free-market perfection.” The reality is that catch share programs create constrained markets that can be designed to achieve ecological and social goals. Far from creating unfettered markets, catch shares represent a powerful way to counter market forces that result in overfishing, excessive bycatch, and damage to ocean habitats.

Some degree of dislocation and distress is inevitable when fish stocks are depleted or when fleets are overcapitalized, and some negative results attributed to catch shares are actually legacies from conventional management. Well-designed and well-implemented catch shares can minimize social and economic impacts often associated with transitioning to a more sustainable fishery. Each step of the catch share design process provides an opportunity to build in measures aimed at achieving social, ecological, and economic goals (see the Environmental Defense Fund's new Catch Share Design Manual for more details at

Without catch shares, fisheries have suffered from overfishing, excessive bycatch, and even collapse resulting in massive job loss, lost fishing opportunity, and crumbling fishing communities. Imposition of stringent conservation measures without catch shares has often exacerbated adverse social and economic impacts, resulting in strong opposition to conservation measures. We cannot stay the course: instead, we must design catch shares to work for the fish, for fishermen, and for society.

and Rod Fujita "We Cannot Stay the Course," BioScience 61(4), (1 April 2011).

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