My article makes clear the urgent need to curb global overfishing, and discusses the successful use of catch share systems in Alaska and Namibia. Nowhere in the piece do I advocate “staying the course” of failed conventional fisheries management. By granting rights to a set proportion of the total allowed catch, catch shares management does end the wasteful and destructive race for fish, and this has clear economic benefits. Existing studies of the success of catch shares management in restoring threatened fish stocks are more equivocal. Sometimes fish populations hold steady or even rebound; sometimes not.
Understanding how catch share systems work, in both economic and ecological terms, is essential to building effective new management schemes. The assertion that catch shares work by creating stewardship incentives appears frequently on the Environmental Defense Fund's (EDF) Web site—so it's ironic that Rod Fujita dismisses this issue. One example appears on page 2 of the EDF's new Catch Share Design Manual, cited in Fujita's letter: “By allocating participants a secure share of the catch, catch share programs give participants a long-term stake in the fishery and tie their current behavior to future outcomes. This security provides a stewardship incentive for fishermen that was previously missing.”
There is little empirical support for this claim. In catch share systems where participants indefinitely hold rights to quota, these rights become concentrated in the hands of a fortunate few who often retire from active fishing to live off the income from leasing fees. Active fishers must pay out most of their profit in lease fees. Quota holders—the people supposedly inspired to act as stewards—no longer go out to sea. This is the outcome of what some vocal advocates view as an ideal free market in quota.
Catch shares involve rights to harvest and profit from a public resource: wild ocean fish. In practice, most existing catch share systems assign quota rights without charge, and then allow these rights to be held indefinitely. The EDF seems to prefer this version of catch shares management, and the organization's design manual advocates “secure” and “transferable” rights to quota. But there are more equitable alternatives. Instead of gifting quota rights to select individuals or groups for an indefinite term, governments can rent out quota rights for limited time periods, investing the resulting revenue in fisheries conservation and monitoring. This approach may disregard the “stewardship incentive” argument—but it returns the wealth arising from publicly owned fishery resources to the public, rather than a few lucky quota holders.