One Fish, Two Fish, No Fish
A new approach tries to save the sea's bounty—and those whose jobs depend on it
Exclusive zone. Fishing in New England used to be a day at the beach. The first Magnuson Act in 1976 kicked out massive foreign fleets by creating a 200-mile exclusive economic zone in U.S. waters. With little oversight, the domestic industry exploded. By the late 1980s, overfishing was rampant. "But there still was intense resistance to any controls," says Andy Rosenberg, a former administrator for New England fisheries. "New England wouldn't accept that there should be a limit on catch."
The Conservation Law Foundation successfully sued the government in 1991 for failure to protect the resource. The 1990s was the industry's nadir. Haddock and codfish stocks collapsed. Regulators closed off vast ocean areas and tightened days at sea. New England lost 20,000 fishing industry jobs. Fishermen who survived bought up or leased others' days-at-sea permits and diversified to other fish.
With overfishing still endemic, environmentalists sued again in 2000 and again won. This time they had an unlikely ally, a group of Cape Cod fishermen who prefer to fish with hooks strung across a line suspended deep underwater. Siding with environmentalists made them the "bad boy" among their peers for wanting to end overfishing, says Peter Taylor, cofounder of the Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fishermen's Association. Days-at-sea rules tightened again, but his group had struck a deal with regulators to create a type of limited-access privilege program. To get out from under trip limits, the group would submit to a rigorous reporting regimen on everything it caught as well as abide by an annual fish quota. Not having trip limits allows the fishermen to catch more fish per trip and spend less on fuel and maintenance. The group has since expanded to include gill netters like St. Pierre.
Each program is different. But in general, the Bush administration is promoting limited-access privilege programs that give fishermen a percentage stake in a certain fishery, defined as certain species within a region, e.g., New England for groundfish. If you own 1 percent of a fishery with 1,000 fish, you get 10 fish to catch and sell. Guaranteed. No race for the fish. And because you have a vested interest, you want that fishery to grow. If there are 2,000 fish five years from now, you get 20 fish to catch and sell. As the fishery grows, shares become more valuable. And in some cases, they can be sold. Hence, it produces a conservation ethic.
This idea isn't new. New Zealand has used cooperatives since 1986. And Alaska formed several after its entire 1994 halibut season was shortened to just three frenzied days. That incredible derby resulted in ships throwing overboard tons of unwanted fish, while the sudden glut of halibut depressed prices.
In March, the group Environmental Defense released the first data-driven assessment of the new U.S. programs and gave them rave reviews. The amount of fish caught by cooperatives is better monitored. Discards are down 40 percent, and revenue per boat is up 80 percent. Today, there are eight cooperatives operating in U.S. waters, a number the government wants to double.