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The management system used for Alaskan halibut and other Pacific fisheries could help restore healthy fish populations and make fishing more profitable if widely adopted,

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New Study Sounds Rare Optimistic Note in Sustainable Seafood Conversation

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The management system used for Alaskan halibut and other Pacific fisheries could help restore healthy fish populations and make fishing more profitable if widely adopted, according to new study published in the latest issue of Marine Policy.

Researchers found "catch shares," which assign a specific amount of the total allowable catch to a fisherman or group of fishermen, are more effective than collective catch limits at averting overfishing and destructive fishing practices.

Study co-author Kate Bonzon, who works for the Environmental Defense Fund, compares fishing management strategies to a parent's handling of the situation that unfolds after a pinata's broken at a child's birthday party. Traditional fisheries management -- in which fishermen are constrained only by rules regulating boat size, gear type and calendar date -- is analogous to a parent trying to slow a candy rush by insisting each child only use one hand.

If a parent was to use the catch share approach, Bonzon says, he or she would say, "You can each get 10 pieces of candy. You have to stay within your limit or find someone willing to give you candy. Go after sugary candy, go after chocolate candy, go after whatever you like." Bonzon says the strategy would result in children behaving less frantically, a scenario that exactly mirrors what happens at sea.

In the 1990s, before the Alaskan halibut fishery was governed by catch shares, fishermen wiped out the year's total limit over the course of two days. "There were thousands of vessels out there," Bonzon says. "Now, the season is almost 250 days long."

Since fishermen are now responsible only for their assigned tallies, rather than trying to calculate how many fish have been captured by competing boats, it's easier for them to stay within catch limits under the share system. The study also shows fishermen tend to fish in a more environmentally-responsible way when they're not forced to work at a frenetic pace. Catch shares give fishermen the freedom to decide when they want to fish, a choice that can have significant economic repercussions.

Catch shares aren't a universally accepted solution to problems plaguing the seafood industry: There is continuing debate concerning the size and distribution of shares and worries about the monopolization of wealth. A Pew Environmental Trust study released in 2009 showed catch shares improved the consistency of fisheries but didn't lead to larger fish populations.

But Bonzon believes catch shares can benefit eaters.

"The cool thing is when there's a longer time period, the fishermen deliver a better product," she says. "They can bring it back fresh rather than frozen."

Prior to the switchover in the halibut industry, most halibut ended up in fish sticks, since fishermen had to immediately freeze what they caught in order to keep fishing.

"Catch shares consistently outperform traditional management," Bonzon says. "There are some places around the world where catch shares are being used, but there could be many, many more."

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