Let's give fishermen a piece of the action

November 09, 2005|By JAY HANCOCK

Should fishermen be able to own, buy and sell fish like stocks and bonds - BEFORE they catch them?

That's the idea behind individual fishing quotas, the latest market-based environmental solution to get political traction.

IFQs, used in New Zealand, Alaska, British Columbia and elsewhere, give individual watermen an exclusive share of the legal catch for a particular species, generally based on what they caught in the past.

Fishermen can catch their quota in a few weeks, if they can, and then do something else. They can wait, if they want, for prices to improve, weather to clear up or boats to be fixed.

Or they can sell their quota for a lump sum to the highest bidder. The quota is effectively their asset, and what to do with it is their choice.

"We're moving forward on IFQs," says Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, an Eastern Shore Republican who heads the House subcommittee on fisheries and oceans. "I think they're a good idea, and I think I can convince my colleagues that we're not shoving anything down anybody's throat."

IFQs probably won't be tried soon on the Chesapeake Bay, which suffers from the same sustainability questions as other fisheries. But if Congress establishes IFQ rules for deep-ocean fisheries next year, as some want, models might emerge that could be tried here.

IFQs are on the front burner because the Bush administration likes them and because Alaska Republican Ted Stevens has replaced Arizona Republican John McCain as chairman of the Senate commerce committee. Stevens has vowed to revamp the Magnuson-Stevens Act, which governs the nation's offshore fisheries. Many think the act - which Stevens co-wrote - will be expanded to contain federal IFQ standards when all is done.

The administration doesn't call them IFQs; its preferred term is "dedicated access privileges." But the concept is basically the same.

IFQs and other market-based green solutions are supposed to alleviate environmental ills more efficiently than government bureaucrats could by assigning people property rights for what was previously a common resource. With a permanent stake in the game, the thinking goes, fishermen would take better care of the future health of the fishery.

Perhaps the most successful market environmental remedy is the trading in pollution-emission permits by electric utilities. It's the opposite of a fishing quota; instead of limiting how much fish are brought in, the government caps how much pollution can go out and assigns sulfur-dioxide emission-rights shares that individual utilities can buy and sell.

Plants that can cheaply cut emissions do so and sell their permits to somebody else. Overall pollution goes down, and market forces push the cost lower than it would be otherwise.

(The administration's "cap-and-trade" system for mercury pollution is similar but problematic. Mercury is much more poisonous than sulfur dioxide and needs tighter regulation.)

IFQs have apparently worked well in the Alaska halibut trade. One chief advantage for fishermen is the leisure to catch their quota over an entire year. Previously, the halibut limit was exhausted in three or four days. Watermen had to fish 24 hours a day to get a good share, fish hit processing bottlenecks, and the glut suppressed prices.

But the way to expanded use of IFQs will be choppy. Environmental and cultural concerns prompted Congress to ban new IFQ programs until 2002, and many of the same worries will come up again now that national standards are being considered.

Groups such as Greenpeace oppose the "privatizing" of public resources. Critics also decry the consolidation of fishing rights, in which small operators sell out to big ones and reduce the number of players. That has happened with programs in Alaska, New Jersey and New York.

More-moderate green groups such as the Marine Fish Conservation Network favor national IFQ standards to prevent regional fishery management councils, dominated by fishermen and other industry types, from benefiting too heavily at the expense of natural resources.

"People are going to set up a program that benefits them and their friends," says Lee Crockett, the network's executive director.

Watermen, on the other hand, fear federal micro-management.

"If you let the fishermen figure it out and give them time to figure it out, it'll be workable," Larry Simns, head of the Maryland Watermen's Association and a member of the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council, says by cell phone from his boat. "If you let the bureaucrats do it, without the fishermen's input, it won't be workable."

Gilchrest favors preventing big outfits from snapping up all the IFQs, perhaps by allowing small-boat operators to sell only to other small boats. He would also have the program subject to reauthorization by Congress.

He says IFQs can be "a tool to manage resources a lot better," and he might be right. IFQs deserve a wider trial.


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