A Sea Change Sweeps Northeastern Fishery Management. They May Yowl. They May Howl. But This is Good News for Fishermen

A happy (CapeCod) hooker
A happy (CapeCod) hooker

On May 1, a sea change swept over the New England fishing industry as the government instituted fundamental changes in the way the catch is managed. To hear the howls of protest,  you’d think that the feds had just proposed to drain the ocean in an attempt to put every last fisherman out of business.

The truth is that the new system, called “catch shares,” or sectors, has worked in fisheries around the world since the concept was born in New Zealand, Australia, and Iceland in the 1970s. In most cases, sectors result in a win-win-win situation for the environment, fishermen, and the consumer. Despite reams of evidence and testimony from fishermen, it seems like the wheel has to be reinvented every time catch shares are introduced to a new area.

 The concept behind catch shares is straightforward. First you set a scientifically sound limit on the amount of fish that can be sustainably taken. Then you allot a guaranteed percentage of that limit to groups of fishermen of individual fishermen. If the fish population thrives and the total limit gets increased, the amount that can be taken by each shareholder goes up. In essence fishermen get an ownership stake in the health of the fishery.

In 2008, the Environmental Defense Fund assembled a team of 30 specialists to examine how 10 North American catch-share fisheries were faring. Their report, “Sustaining America’s Fisheries and Fishing Communities: An Evaluation of Incentive-Based Management ” showed that catch-share fisheries were twice as likely to stay within legal limits as were non-catch-share operations. Overall, catch-share fisheries under-shot their limits by 5 percent. Bycatch, the industry term for unwanted or illegal fish that have to be thrown overboard, usually dead, dropped by 40 percent.

Most importantly from the fishing industry’s standpoint, revenues per boat actually increased by 80 percent. And the chance of getting hurt—a big issue in an industry where jobs are 35 times more dangerous than the average American job (much more dangerous than mining)—was cut by more than half.

There is a downside to sectors. Some fishermen do drop by the wayside, often those who fish only a small amount of time. And the total number of jobs can decrease, although the remaining jobs tend to be steadier full-time positions, rather than part-time gigs.

If the New England fishermen want to assuage their fears, they should talk to members of the Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fishermen’s Association. That small, boutique fishery adopted catch shares in 2004. At the time, according to Eric Hesse, a member of the association, it was all but certain that he would be out of business in a few years if things continued going in the direction they were headed. Today he’s confident that his kids, if so inclined, will be able to take over his boat someday.

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  1. Jacquie says:

    This is how most of the Alaskan Halibut and King Crab fisheries are conducted. There are growing pains and it becomes more difficult for new/young fisherfolk to buy into a permit, BUT the scientifically based quotas do more to sustain the population. The jobs lost are usually the deck hand positions as the quota (or % catch, or shares) goes to the boat or captain. This formula creates overnight millionaires.

    My only problem with this system is it makes it hard for newcomers like my husband and I to buy into commercial fishing. Most people we know inherit permits/shares/IFQ from their family. The cost and relatively volatile nature of halibut right now is why we troll.

    Anyway, just my 2 cents. Fish politics up here are crazy interesting.

  2. Tim o'Shea says:

    I would suggest that you and your husband,and other friends from Alaska contact the Chatham Hook group mentioned above. Paul Parker and the CCCHFA group saw this exact issue years ago, of the ability of new fisherman coming in as a problem. They have been developing community shares positions that try to even out the buy in requirements for newcomers. I cannot say that all is completely thought out. Yet, there has been a lot of great thinking and hands-on strategy developed by this group. CleanFish started working with ‘the Hook’ and from that experience we decided to buy seats on the Gloucester auction, specifically to look out for hook n’ line/jig/ and other quality catch methods of day-boat fishermen in that area. Perhaps there are some insights they could share that might help you in Alaska as well, fisherman-to-fisherman. Best of luck, Tim

  3. Jacquie says:


    Thanks! There has been some movement in Alaska to allow communities to purchase shares, mostly it’s a program for small villages right now. Halibut and groundfish shares are a far away dream for us, mostly due to the boat/gear requirements. Eventually we’ll get there but I like the idea of communities working together to help new people get started.

    Funny, when I saw the word “Chatham” I thought you may be here as one of our major fishing grounds is Chatham Straight. Then I realized there could be a Chatham on the east coast too.

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