Cap and Trade for Fish?

codhead.jpgWhile Congress debates the value of cap-and-trade for carbon emissions, fishermen around the US and the globe have already implemented various cap-and-trade schemes to prevent depletion of fish stocks.
This summer, the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration established a task force to accelerate development of cap and trade policies (which NOAA calls “catch share”) in US fisheries.


Chaos at Sea
Current policy for many endangered fisheries is to narrow the window available to fish to a few weeks, or even a few days. As a result, each season an armada of fishing boats swoops down on the fish stock all at the same time, as each fisher seeks to maximize their catch in the time allowed.
This fisherman’s blitzkrieg harms the fish, who do not recover as quickly from such an onslaught, the fishers, by flooding the market and pushing down the price, and the consumer, because, while some of the endangered fish goes to market immediately, the rest are frozen – ie, there’s less fresh fish.
In Alaska, the halibut catch was switched to catch share in 1995, with positive results. Each fisher was given a life-long share of the catch, which he or she could trade or sell. The halibut season went from a very chaotic three days to eight months, and the combined value of the catch rose 67%, according to the Economist.
More importantly from an environmental standpoint (and the halibut’s), fishers now have a strong incentive to keep their catch low, since they own a piece of the stock.
Free Market Peril
But, as with carbon cap-and-trade, catch share, also known as “individual transferable quotas,” (ITQs), has its doubters.
Figuring out how much of the catch each fisher is due is tricky, and without independent management, can devolve into political bickering (ornery fishermen, anyone?).
Privatization also doesn’t solve the problem of by-catch, unwanted species caught in fishing gear meant for other species. And catch share and similar schemes can’t work everywhere, for instance in international waters, where it’s simply too easy to cheat.
Law professor Rebecca Bratspies, writing recently on Grist.com, compared ITQs to the recent collapse of the financial industry.

Merely having a market with clear private ownership rights does not protect against short-sightedness, misvaluation, and greed – all of which come into play when we talk about overfishing.

These considerations have not stopped fisheries in the US, Iceland, New Zealand and other countries from adopting the schemes, and results have been largely favorable. A recent UC Santa Barbara study of over 11,000 fisheries worldwide showed that while nearly a third of open-access fisheries have collapsed, the number is only half that for fisheries managed under catch share systems, according to a university press release.
In the US, the number of catch share fisheries has risen to 12 from 7 just two years ago, and more are in development, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service.

BC (Ben) Upham is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. He has written for the New York Times, and was a writer and editor for News Communications, Inc., a local paper consortium serving Manhattan. When he's not blogging on green issues -- and especially renewable energy -- he's hiking in the Angeles Mountains or hanging out at El Matador.