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.
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.
"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.
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.
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.
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 http://www.conservefish.org.