Aug 30 2011

Fish on Fridays: The Newest Redlist Species: Commercial Fishermen

'Fishing Boats in San Diego' photo (c) 2011, Randy Kashka - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/

By Michael Conathan

Sustainability is the ultimate buzzword in fisheries and it’s led to the ubiquitous red-yellow-green list as one of the most popular means of trying to present consumers with a simple yet comprehensive way of determining whether or not they should order a certain kind of fish. Yet on the wallet cards that attempt to provide an accurate breakdown, there’s one species that’s never talked about: commercial fishermen.

There’s no question that the number of jobs available in many fisheries declined in recent years, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that this will continue. But unlike other industries in which job loss is driven by economic decline or market contraction, in fisheries, productivity is limited by just one thing: fish. Not enough fish means not enough fishing.

And anything that causes a decline in jobs is ripe for political pressure to end the slide at any cost, particularly in a down economy. Yet here’s the fundamental problem: There’s not a single politician in the world—not a president or prime minister or poobah—who can regulate, dictate, or legislate more fish into existence.

This hasn’t stopped some politicians, though, from pointing fingers in an attempt to score points with their constituents, who understandably blame low catch levels on the regulators who set the limits on how much fish can be harvested. These same regulators are under a legal mandate to set catches at or below levels recommended by scientists based on the best information they can gather.

Complicating matters is that at the same time these strict catch-limit policies have taken effect, a new management system touted mainly by environmental groups has gained quite a bit of traction with federal regulators. Catch shares is an overarching term for a management system that, in one form or another, divides up the total amount of fish available for harvest in a given year and allocates it to permit holders annually, usually on the basis of their historical landings. Fishermen can then either fish their allocation, or lease or sell it to their colleagues. Think of it as a cap-and-trade system for fish. A Fish on Fridays column from April has more on the details of catch shares.

Read the rest here.

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