Privatizing Public Waters: Congress May Allow Individual Fishing Quotas

By Cat Lazaroff

WASHINGTON, DC, September 27, 2000 (ENS) - By the end of this week, Congress must decide whether to allow the nation’s fisheries managers to limit fishing in public waters to a select list of individuals and corporations.

Environmentalists and some fishing groups say the lawmakers’ choice could have serious implications for both fishers and fish.


Fish nets used to come up full. Now, fishers must travel farther and fish longer to fill their nets - often with smaller fish (Photo courtesy National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)
Since 1996, fisheries managers have been barred from using individual fishing quotas (IFQs) to control the catch from a particular fishery. IFQs would parcel out shares of public fisheries to private or corporate fishers, giving them exclusive rights to a percentage of the annual catch.

Supporters of quotas argue that they provide a reliable means of limiting the amount of fish taken from a fishery. IFQ programs also give fishers an incentive to conserve fisheries resources, because they, in effect, own a portion of those resources.

But opponents warn that where this approach has been tried without strict standards, it has done more damage than good.

Congress recognized this risk when it passed the Sustainable Fisheries Act in 1996, including language creating a four year moratorium on individual fishing quotas. The ban was intended to give the federal government time to draft and approve nationwide standards for the use of IFQs to safeguard fisheries, fish habitat and the livelihoods of small scale fishers.

Four years later, no such standards have been created.


A white-tipped shark caught in a fishers' net (Photo courtesy Greenpeace)
Without proper safeguards, this privatization of marine fisheries can be risky for both fish and fishermen, warns the Marine Fish Conservation Network, a coalition of more than 100 conservation groups, fishing associations and marine scientists representing almost five million people.

"In Alaska and New Jersey, where IFQ programs were implemented without adequate standards, they have put fishermen out of work and done too little to improve the health of the fisheries themselves," said Lee Crockett, executive director of the Marine Fish Conservation Network.

Network members are pushing for Congress to extend the moratorium on new IFQ programs until Congress can adopt clear standards to adequately protect fishers and the marine environment.

Forty-three percent of managed fish species in U.S. waters are considered seriously overfished. The federal government has declared fisheries disasters in Alaska, New England, and on the West Coast.

Environmentalists are concerned that individual fishing quota programs developed without adequate conservation standards would fail to conserve fish. "These programs could be helpful in the management of some fisheries, but it is absolutely crucial that we first establish national standards to protect fish and fishermen," said Kim Davis, fish conservation program director for the Center for Marine Conservation.


Factory fishing trawler at sea. Quotas could favor those who catch the most fish, not those who fish most responsibly (Photo courtesy Greenpeace)
Among the problems: since most quotas are based on an individual’s historic catch levels, responsible fishers who catch moderate numbers of fish are penalized, while the heaviest fishers get the highest quotas.

If quota shares are transferable, they can be sold to the highest bidder - often a corporation that develops a stranglehold on a fishery, the Marine Fish Conservation Network warns.

Fishing associations such as the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations and the Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fishermen’s Association fear that family fishermen will be squeezed out of their livelihoods by big operators that can afford to amass exclusive rights to the fish. They cite the surf clam IFQ program in New Jersey, where the number of boats on the water dropped by almost two thirds and now the largest shareholders are a national bank and one of the country’s biggest accounting firms.

"While big corporations gobble up shares of the fishing take, traditional fishermen, their families and communities will be forced to abandon their heritage," said Pietro Parravano, president of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, the largest commercial fishing group on the West Coast. "This nation was founded by family farmers and fishermen, and now the farmers have been all but wiped out by agribusiness. Are we going to condemn fishermen to the same fate?"

The Marine Fish Conservation Network has proposed a list of standards that it hopes Congress will adopt before lifting the ban on individual fishing quotas.


Fish waste is poured back into the sea by a factory trawler. (Photo courtesy Greenpeace)
One of the most important criteria, the Network says, is that IFQs must not become property rights that corporations or individuals can defend in court. Instead, quotas should be given as a privilege - one that can be revoked if abused through overfishing or the use of fishing practices that damage the marine environment.

Quota shares should also be of a set duration, subject to review before renewal, the Network argues. Individual quotas and IFQ programs as a whole should have to provide substantial conservation benefits, such as measurable improvements in avoiding the catching, killing, and discarding of non-target fish, reducing overfishing, rebuilding overfished stocks, and protecting essential fish habitat.

Reviews should be performed by a national panel made up of fisheries experts and people with no stake in the fishery system, the Network suggests.

To ensure that individual fishing quotas do not spell the end of family fishers and their heritage, limits should be established to prevent consolidation of quota shares by corporations, the Network says.

Preference should be given to fishers who can demonstrate a record of conservation minded fishing practices and have long term participation in the fishery.

Congress should also allow conservation groups to purchase quotas without fishing, the Network says, instead reserving the quota shares to protect marine ecosystems.

"These standards are something all of our members have agreed upon, from the ones that most oppose IFQs to the ones that are most in favor," said Nicholas Pearson of the Marine Fish Conservation Network.


Fishing boats crowd a wharf at Cordova, Southern Alaska (Photo courtesy NOAA)
Despite its own efforts to draft standards for individual fishing quotas, the Network argues that there is not enough time to fix the quota system before the moratorium expires on September 30.

They have support from some Congress members already, including Representative William Delahunt, Democrat of Massachusetts, who sent a letter last week in support of continuing the moratorium.

"America’s fisheries are in poor shape," wrote Delahunt. "Today, our farmers of the sea face enormous challenges in keeping the industry afloat. If we stand aside, we invite an era of corporate domination of our fisheries."

"If we must move toward a system of IFQs," continued Delahunt, "we can take modest steps to do so in a far more thoughtful and methodical manner."

"Privatization is not a silver bullet solution," said Karen Wood DiBari of the Alaska Marine Conservation Council. "Changing management of the nation's fisheries from a public resource to privately held quota shares is a fundamental shift in philosophy and is almost impossible to reverse. We must proceed with caution."

For more information about IFQs visit the Marine Fish Conservation Network at