Catch Shares

A Fisherman’s Perspective: Catch Shares

BenPlattBy: Ben Platt


Following is text from an email to the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) that Ben Platt, a Fort Bragg, CA fisherman, wrote in response to EDF’s promotion of catch shares:



EDF’s campaign to implement catch shares in our nation’s fisheries is not only misguided, but it is a serious threat to the livelihoods of the majority of American fishermen. Fishermen beware: you are gazing directly into the friendly eyes of a lion in sheep’s clothing!

This is one of those panacea, cure-all fixes for fisheries management which NGO’s love to promote because they are easy sells to the legions of non-fishing folks who are easily convinced that something needs to be saved because EDF tells them so and they don’t have enough other information to know any better. Fortunately for fishermen, we have already witnessed the disastrous results to fishing communities when this system of management has been imposed and we will not let it happen to us.

First and foremost, we must recognize that, in practice, ITQ does nothing to protect the resource. This is a tool for redistributing wealth. I will explain that distinction as follows:

ITQ is always intended to reduce fleet size. This is accomplished through qualifying criteria which only rewards one type of fisherman, while marginalizing or excluding all others. Commercial fishermen have always come in all shapes and sizes. One man’s approach does not work for another: while one may find it beneficial to concentrate on a couple of fisheries every year, others drop in and out depending on market considerations, maintenance projects, etc. Some successful fishing operations fish for a little of many different species every year. Some may fish enough to pay their bills, and some may be driven to greater success. Some who may be striving for success have to start at the bottom and work their way up.

So here is the problem with “catch shares”:

a. Qualifying criteria are set so anyone with pre-determined poundage of minimum landings of a species will qualify, but only those in the higher brackets of landings are rewarded enough quota to make enough money to continue successfully in the fishery.

Those under a certain poundage of historical landings are rewarded quota, but not enough to  make it worthwhile, especially with increased permit fees, payments for mandatory observers, monitoring devices, etc. And those with minimal landing history don’t qualify for any quota and are forever removed from the fishery. Most of those in the middle category now are forced to sell their shares to those who already own enough quota; or, if it is allowed, outside investors begin to speculate in the fishery.

In short, ITQ’s only benefit one class of fishermen.

b. ITQ creates a caste system in fisheries management:

As a fishery is “rationalized,” there are fewer participants but roughly the same amount of overall poundage of fish to catch every year. Previously rationalized fisheries show that quota owners are able to increase the per-pound value of fish in the marketplace. In other words, they can have more control over marketing and price. Now the price of quota in the ITQ market begins to increase. This benefits quota holders, but makes it progressively difficult for anyone with minimal quota shares to build up enough shares to make it viable to become a viable participant in the fishery. And those trying to start a career in fishing can’t afford the price of admission unless they are already wealthy! This is a truly un-American dream where even Horatio Alger would fail.

What happens to fisheries which are subject to consolidation? A few families or a few corporations have the whole pie. They get rich. Everyone else goes away or has to work for the big operators. No matter if their own families have spent generations as owner/operators, it is now a brave new world of efficiency and progress. The only way for newcomers with new energy and fresh ideas to enter into this livelihood after “rationalization” is if they inherit quota from family or already rich. The proof of these assertions can be found in the very real experiences of fishermen in New Zealand, Nova Scotia, Alaska and now, Florida.

The excellent documentary film, “One More Dead Fish”, is a heartbreaking document of “rationalization” at work. And one needs look no further than the recent archives of National Fisherman magazine to get the fisherman’s side of the story in the American fisheries which have fallen to this system of management.

c. In many fisheries, this approach is simply imposing a solution where there is no problem:
Most fisheries in the U.S. today already have overall catch limits and monthly or bi-monthly quotas; those that do not need them and never will. Here are few examples:

The Dungeness crab fishery on the West Coast is a successful fishery with a diverse fleet and a historically healthy biomass. There may be an argument in this fishery for trap limits for environmental or marketing considerations, but the “three S’s” management approach (sex, size, season) has worked without fail in this fishery to date. This is a case where “each according to his need, each according to his ability” rules the fleet, and it works.

Dungeness populations seem to ebb and flow on a ten-year cycle. When the cycle is down, there is less participation. Nobody wants to burn fuel, bait and risk losing gear if they aren’t catching. And the guy with a small boat, 100 traps and no crew can pull his gear right next to a much bigger boat which has three crew on deck and 500 traps. The little guy might be selling crabs out of his truck for more $ per pound and be as happy about it as the big high-liner with his mountain of crabs in the hold who will get a lower price but make good money due to his volume. Both will go home happy to their family tonight. If it ain’t broke, why fix it?

The salmon troll fishery is another example of catch shares being a bad idea: essentially this fishery is already limited every year by projected escapement to the rivers and the amount of fishing time this allows on the ocean in each area for the troll fleet. The results are carefully checked and the computer harvest models are adjusted every year based on exhaustive collection of landing data, stream surveys, hatchery reports, etc. There are also constraints possible every year based on concerns over specific runs from certain rivers, as there is this season based on the Sacramento Fall Chinook. This is a closely watched and tightly regulated fishery.

Ocean harvest is not a problem in this fishery; the conditions of our rivers and hatcheries are. Salmon need cool, clean, quickly moving water to survive and flourish. They aren’t getting it and that is why there are problems in this fishery. Capping harvest doesn’t help!

Historical data proves there is no need to cap the potential harvest of each boat in this fishery. During years of huge harvests, there has always been more than enough escapement. This is a hook and line fishery. Only the fish that wants to bites the hook. The rest go up the river and spawn.

These fish are constantly moving; unlike certain species of rock cod, you cannot keep returning to the same rock until all the fish are fooled into taking the bait. And if you cap harvest, how is the motivated fisherman ever to get ahead of his bills if he no longer has the chance to really make hay when the sun is shining? There are good years and bad years for lots of reasons, including but not limited to abundance, weather, breakdowns of machinery, health, etc. Fishermen know this and are able to keep their chins up during the hard times because they know “better times are coming.” And sometimes, they do come. If you lock a man into his “catch share,” you rob him of this potential.

In conclusion, my message to those behind the EDF campaign to “rationalize” our fisheries is this: you need to look closely at the exact nature of each fishery before trying to “better” it. And really, this approach is quite similar to the Bush Doctrine in that you propose to come in and kill a bunch of us in order to save us. This policy is almost as arrogant as Manifest Destiny. Look, today’s fishing families are educated on the issues affecting our fisheries. Instead of the outside-in approach, come sit with us at the table and learn about these fisheries in detail before attempting to impose draconian measures designed to protect us from ourselves. The current EDF approach only leads to mistrust and animosity on our part and possibly, more enemies to your cause. (See Bush Doctrine). Unless there are unstated motives to this cause, I doubt you are campaigning for more enemies.

Ben and Heidi Platt
f/v “Kay Bee”
Ft. Bragg, CA

Institute for Fisheries Resources
PO Box 29196
San Francisco, CA 94129-0196
415.561.5464 (fax)