Another push for catch shares – Nils E. Stolpe, FishNet-USA

Another push for catch shares

FishNet-USA/May 11, 2016

Nils E. Stolpe

(Don’t get the idea from this that I oppose any fisheries management regime. What I do oppose is having the future of particular fisheries determined by people and/or organizations and/or corporations with no meaningful ties to and no concern about the existing industry and the people in it. Irrespective of whether the decisions have their roots in in corporate, ENGO or foundation board rooms, the halls of academe or “investment” seminars, as the ongoing debacle in the New England groundfish fishery so clearly and tragically demonstrates, if the fishing industry doesn’t have final say in the imposition of measures that its members will be working with, the affected communities will suffer.)


With talk in the air of an upcoming Magnuson Act reauthorization which is coincident with the 40th anniversary of its passage, the proponents of catch shares in general and individual transferable quotas in particular, are mounting a public relations barrage in a continuation of their efforts to “privatize” our fisheries.


Most recently, the April 19 New York Times Opiniator column How Dwindling Fish Stocks Got a Reprieve by freelance journalist Sylvia Rowley, touted the benefits of catch shares by citing the example of the West coast groundfish fishery. It also quoted catch shares proselytizer and NOAA ex-head Jane Lubchenco, back on the Environmental Defense board after her brief sojourn in the10172769-large almost-real world of the federal bureaucracy, on catch shares: “If you have 5 percent of the pie, you’d like to see the pie grow.”


Implicit in all of the pro-catch shares rhetoric, as Ms. Lubchenco’s quote above amply demonstrates, is the idea that this particular form of fisheries management is necessary for healthy fisheries. She apparently believes, or wants us to believe, that fishermen who don’t own a part of a fishery aren’t interested in having a larger part of that particular pie.  In fact nothing could be further from the truth. “Successful” fisheries management requires only three things. The first is an accurate determination of the significant sources of mortality on a fish or shellfish stock and the relative magnitude of those sources. The second is ensuring that all of those sources of mortality that can be controlled are controlled. The third is determining on an ongoing basis what the acceptable (sustainable?) levels of harvest are and assuring that those levels are maintained.


Of course this is hardly possible in the context of so-called fisheries management today, which is in reality fishing management. In that context, which we seem to be stuck with, the three requirements are a bit different. The first would be an accurate determination of what the sustainable level of harvest is (i.e. the quota). The second would be the design management measures that insure that the quota is caught but not exceeded. The third would be the enforcement of those management measures.


As far as the fish or shellfish are concerned, how the quota is divided up is irrelevant.


In fact, Ms. Rowley’s words reflect this. She writes that in the years from 2000 to 2015 “the tally of federally managed fish populations that have been rebuilt went from zero to 39” and then a few paragraphs later “the total number of federal fisheries using catch shares rose from five in 2000 to 16 in 2015.” In its annual Status of the (fish and shellfish) Stocks report to Congress for 2015, NOAA Fisheries reports on the overfishing status of fish and shellfish stocks. From 2000 to 2015 the stocks managed via catch shares increased from .5% to 5% but the number of stocks where overfishing was not taking place remained at 91%. The proportion of fisheries managed by catch shares went from an insignificant level to a minimally significant level, yet the overall health of the stocks, as measured by the proportion of them in which overfishing was occurring, didn’t change at all. Could it be that Ms. Lubchenco’s “catch shares revolution” is, to quote Shakespeare in The Merchant of Venice, “full of sound and fury. Signifying nothing?” (Note that NOAA Fisheries recognized 905 stocks in 2000 and 313 stocks in 2015.)


So why are the people at EDF, including Ms. Lubchenco both while she was there, when she was in charge of NOAA and now that she’s back at EDF, so bullish on catch shares if it makes no difference to the critters in question? Perhaps because it allows them to use their tax exempt millions to finance fishing operations and dictate how the fishermen they are financing have to fish, sort of like having fishermen owe their souls to the company store (See The California Fisheries Fund, EDF’s unique way of controlling fishermen and fishing, at California Fisheries Fund Click here


Or perhaps it’s to fatten the bank accounts of EDF and/or its friends, directors, members, etc. From the transcript of a talk by then EDF West Coast Vice President David Festa to the Miliken Institute Global Conference in 2009:


“You know, so how do I – you know, but I know that if I fix all that, I can be profitable in the future. So I pull together investors and I buy the factory and I sink a whole bunch of money into it and, you know, retrain workers and then get paid back on the profits on the other end.


Well, why can’t we do that with fisheries? Well, first – and I hope David will address some of this – first, we have to have commitment from the government to the regulatory change.


And then, second, we have to have capital. And that’s where I think public-private partnerships come in because the government has the mandate and the authority to change the rules, but it doesn’t have as much capital as it once had.


The private sector has the capital but, of course, doesn’t have the responsibility of defending the public trust way the government does. So it’s a perfect partnership.


So that’s the second thing that I think needs to happen.


How much money is to be made out there, and how do we think about the risks associated with this? You know, that’s where we need your help.


Just one statistic, in all of the catch-share fisheries that have transitioned over, the value of that fishery tends to increase by – or the shares in that fishery tend to increase by a factor of four. That’s an average. The current U.S. industry is a $5 billion industry.


So, you know, it’s not – it’s not telecommunications-size money, but it’s real money.”


(In on page 11.)


Now there’s a novel idea – turning over the ownership of a heretofore public resource to private sector investors so they can profit from the harvest and sale of that resource. Of course Mr. Festa didn’t mention that the world’s seafood supply has become so large and that the transportation of seafood from anywhere to here has become so cheap that the U.S. fishing industry has little or nothing to do with setting prices anymore. So where’s Mr. Festa’s investor’s profits likely to come from? Out of the holds of the fishing boats and out of the pockets of the fishermen, it would seem.


But even more troubling is the control that “outside” groups would gain over fishing – or not fishing.


As EDF’s California Fishing Fund does such a good job of demonstrating, it’s not who owns the fishing permits, it’s who – or what – controls them that matters. Suppose that an ENGO serving as the “company store” for a large number of permit holders in a particular fishery decides that boats should not be fishing in a particular area. If the agreements that the permit holders had with the ENGO allowed it, the ENGO could simply dictate that the boats could no longer fish there. Bye, bye fishing community (or communities)!  To suggest that this wouldn’t happen would be to ignore the devastation that various ENGOs have, with no qualms or compunctions, inflicted on logging communities in the Northwest for almost three decades.


Catch shares schemes are supposed to be designed so that no person or other entity can own over a certain number of permits in a particular fishery. In the first place, over several hundreds of years, corporate law has been evolving more and better ways of protecting the privacy of corporate owners. Piercing the corporate vail isn’t a trivial legal exercise, nor is the ability of a federal agency to do it successfully a foregone conclusion.


But that’s not the worst case scenario. We’re all far too familiar with the apparently unbridled thirst for power and profit that afflicts many of our largest corporations, as we are familiar with the increasing competition for ocean access by a host of industrial interests for mineral extraction, energy development, transmission cables/pipelines, offshore aquaculture, transportation and who knows what else. Many of these corporate interests could afford to acquire – then shut down – fishing rights in large areas, perhaps allowing them to dispense with what to some corporate leaders must be those annoying distractions, fishermen.


As a purely speculative what if, what if the people at Microsoft decided that a large part of their business in the future was going to be in offshore, submerged data centers (see Microsoft Plumbs Ocean’s Depths to Test Underwater Data Center Click here ). Obviously such data centers would benefit from being close to the demand for them – users of the so called “cloud.” And what if the optimum locations for some of these data centers, the wave/tide generators that powered them, and the cables that connected them to onshore internet hubs were in prime fishing areas? What would it take for Microsoft – or a foundation with close ties to Microsoft – to gain control of the permits of those bothersome fishermen who wanted to continue fishing where they had for generations and to have them fish elsewhere, or to have them ride off into the sunset with their saddlebags stuffed with Microsoft dollars? How divorced is this scenario from what Mr. Festa and EDF, ex NOAA Head Jane Lubchenco and, perhaps inadvertently, Sylvia Rowley and the New York Times are pushing.


And what’s to stop them?


(2015 revenues for some larger corporations: Walmart – $482 billion, Samsung – $305 billion, Exxon-Mobile – $268 billion, Apple – $233 billion, Amazon – $107 billion, Hewlett Packard – $111 billion, Microsoft – $93 billion, Google – $74 billion, Dell – $59 billion, Intel – $55 billion, Sunoco – $44 billion. The across the dock value of U.S. commercial landings in 2014 were $5.5 billion.)


It’s interesting to note that Ms. Rowley saw fit to include W.F. Lloyd’s tragedy of the commons, which was popularized by ecologist Garrett Hardin in 1968, as a pro-catch shares argument, though she made it by using what it would be difficult to classify as anything but weasel words, Ms. Rowley wrote ‘overfishing is often seen as a classic case of what economists call the “tragedy of the commons.”’ What Lolyd and Hardin were describing could only be considered unregulated commons, with no limits in place to control their use. Such is hardly the case in U.S. fisheries (or in many other fisheries around the world).


Our domestic fishermen and our domestic fisheries are among the most regulated in the world, and anyone who thinks he or she can draw parallels between any of our federal fisheries and Lloyd’s/Hardin’s unregulated commons should spend an half an hour or so doing some rudimentary background research.* Even the Wikipedia entry for “tragedy of the commons” states in the second paragraph “commons is taken to mean any shared and unregulated resource….” (my emphasis).


Jim Ruttenberg, media columnist for the NY Times wrote in his 05/05/16 column that political journalism had lost sight of its “primary directives in this election season.” One of his three directives was “to resist the urge to put ratings, clicks and ad sales above the imperative of getting it right.” While he was writing about coverage of national electoral politics, this directive should apply to every kind of journalism, and it should apply every day. I hope that Ms. Rowley was paying attention.



*Background research is something that print and broadcast journalists used to do, or used to have done, in those olden times when “getting it right” was as important as Jim Ruttenberg still thinks it is.