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Interviewees: Christopher Costello, University of California, Santa Barbara
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In most parts of the world, fishing seasons are used to limit fishing and attempt to protect fish populations from disappearing. But, in many cases, the fish have disappeared anyway, leading to what scientists call a “collapse” of a fishery.
So many fish have disappeared that a 2006 study published in the journal Science found that about one third of the world’s fisheries had collapsed, and that all of them could be expected to collapse by about 2048.
So, what’s going wrong? Besides outside influences such as pollution, a change in the acidity of the ocean, and warming temperatures, researchers were starting to wonder if the concept of “fishing season” was somehow contributing to the problem.
Christopher Costello, an associate professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara’s Donald Bren School of Environmental Science and Management, says seasons induce a “race to fish” attitude. With a fixed number of days, fishermen head out in the largest boats they can afford and catch as many fish as possible before the season ends. If fish stocks decline, seasons get cut.
Costello notes that in the mid 1990’s, before Alaska underwent a wholesale change in management, the halibut season was only two days long.
Reeling in a New Plan
What the Alaskan halibut fishery has used since 1995 is a quota system called “catch shares.” The concept gives fishermen a share of the fish for any given fishery. Costello says under the system, “You wouldn’t race over a progressively shorter season, you’d be guaranteed a given share of the scientifically determined catch.”
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So in abundant years a fisherman’s one percent share may be large, but in a year where scientists have determined that there are fewer fish available to catch, that same one percent share may be relatively meager.
Of the more than 11,000 fisheries in the world, only a little more than 120 have been using the “catch-share” method. Some began in the 1970’s, but the idea has only started to catch on in the last few years.
Costello, along with Steven Gaines, the director of the Marine Science Institute at UCSB, and John Lynham, an economics professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, wanted to see if the catch-shares method of fisheries management had any impact on the fish population.
Using the same information used to predict that we could run out of fish by 2048, the team compared traditional versus catch-share fisheries. “What we found was really quite striking,” says Costello. adding “Catch shares not only slow the decline, they actually stop it.”
Writing in the journal Science, they report that the longer the catch-share method was in place, the more beneficial the impact.
Explains Gaines, “Simply changing the way the fishery was managed, on average, reduced the likelihood that the fishery was going to be collapsed by one half.”
He adds this also makes things easier on fishermen, noting, “The amount of effort [for fishermen] goes down dramatically. By removing seasons and deadlines, those with catch shares can use smaller boats, choose to stay in port in bad weather, and use methods that are easier on the environment.”
They also note that there are several ways of implementing catch-shares, including fishermen getting an overall percentage or possibly exclusive rights to a specific area. Either way, the fisherman’s share rights, themselves, become valuable.
Costello says that gives fishermen “a stake in the future” of the fishery. Since they can be bought and sold, shares of a healthy fishery become more valuable than shares of one in decline.
This research was published in the journal, Science for September 19, 2008, and was funded by the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation.
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