Beware: Pirates patrol these waters

By Ben Bowman

For the fish-loving Ethicurean, pensive while paddling a small craft through the treacherous Straits of Seafood Uncertainty, the signal ‘Safe Passage Ahead’ beamed from a passing research ship is more than enough to make the heart lift and quicken.

This was the effect on the fish-focused community two weeks ago when Science magazine published an article that appeared to endorse Individual Transferable Quotas (ITQs) as the definitive market-based solution to current woes of most fisheries: Overcapitalization (excessive investment in equipment to catch fish, given the scarceness of the resource) and overfishing. The article was picked up over on Chews Wise and flagged in an Ethicurean digest a short while later.

The Science article, optimistically titled “Privatization Prevents Collapse of Fish Stocks, Global Analysis Shows,” reviewed a study that analyzed the state of fisheries with ITQs in place and those that use other management regimes. Their findings in brief: Only 14% of the 121 fisheries using ITQs or similar methods had collapsed, compared with 28% of the 11,000-odd fisheries operating under alternate management regimes.

For the average Ethicurean, these results make ITQs sound like a promising management system. Not so simple, say I.

But first: What are ITQs?

There be treasure in them thar seas

An ITQ is a type of fishery management program aimed, at least in theory, at controlling how many fish are caught. It allows an individual or entity to harvest their share of a harvest limit (usually set by the government annually for a single species), which is called a Total Allowable Catch (TAC). Under an ITQ program, the shares can be transferred from one person to another. That is, the ‘owner’ of the individual quota can sell his quota to another person permanently, or lease his quota to another person for a temporary period of time.

Here’s where fishing starts to look a lot like other U.S. industries: Think livestock, corn, soybeans, or milk. Where big seafood businesses are looking to vertically integrate, the introduction of an ITQ program allows them to gradually consolidate control over fisheries by buying up quotas from the original recipients. Once they hold the quotas, corporations develop ‘economies of scale,’ and they can move their product from the oceans to supermarket in a profit-maximizing fashion.

We’ve seen this before in the meat industry. The gains of big business, which they justify using neo-classical economic interpretations of terms like ‘efficiency,’ come with significant public trust, socio-economic, and environmental costs.

The loss of jobs, exclusion of new fishery entrants, ratcheting down of labor wages, the increased bycatch and economic discards (throwing away the fish of least value to maximize the value of the fish they bring to land, which are the ones counted under the quota), inequities in access to public resources, and other serious problems for fishermen and coastal communities associated with ITQ programs were notably unexamined by both the original study and Science article that covered it.

Shiver me timbers

ITQ systems are most often championed by industrial fishing interests. Because the way they’re structured encourages quota-holders to discard low value fish, they are not an effective conservation tool. An ITQ program in the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands crab fishery, known (for reasons understood only by fish-wonks) as "Crab Rationalization," demonstrates the disasters that can arise when an ITQ program designed to maximize economic efficiency is implemented. The consolidation that occurred in just one year is unprecedented. In the Bering and Aleutian fishery, some 1,150 people have lost their jobs, and the remaining jobs pay 50-70% less than they did before the program was introduced. Coastal communities that depend upon a large number of people and boats participating in the industry are suffering immense economic losses.

The marine environment has fared no better than the coastal communities since the program began. Profit-driven fish discards were a serious problem in the first year, with an astounding 5.8 million red crab thrown back into the sea. One in five of the discarded crabs, some 1.16 million, die. A large number of these were edible crabs that mega-processors refused to accept due to small flaws or a discoloration on the shell.

So why did the study find that fisheries using ITQs faired better than other fisheries? Well, ITQs are present in a relatively small number of fisheries, almost exclusively in countries that already have a strong record of fisheries management, such as Australia, New Zealand and Iceland. In other words, the fisheries using ITQs -- those surveyed in the study -- were more likely than not already operating in a highly regulated and somewhat sustainable fashion before the programs came to town. ITQs would have been introduced on top of the existing management programs, not as a conservation tool but as an economic one. For this reason, we should take the study's findings with several large grains of sea salt.

In a press conference call last month, the study authors answered questions about a number of issues, including the litany of ITQ problems. The authors noted that these problems were outside the scope of the study. The authors also noted that that their results “should not be taken as a carte blanche endorsement” of ITQs.

ITQs aren’t the solution to our fish woes; as devised currently, they are a problematic and coarse management tool that may risk further harm to fish populations, coastal communities and marine ecosystems. In practice, we are dealing with piracy: Powerful interests with the aim of concentrating ownership and raiding our common property by designing quasi-private property rights in perpetuity.

One important note: The popularity of ITQs does not mean that America’s fisheries are at risk of becoming privately held resources. In the U.S. context (and in other nation-states), the oceans and everything within them are public trust resources - overseen by governing bodies, purportedly for the benefit of all. While the Science article suggests that public resources are going to be privatized, in reality the private ownership of public fishery resources is not actually allowed. What is happening is effective loss of control over the public resource through the abuse of government-issued limited access privileges. The end result is quasi-privatization in the sense that it is still technically community property, but we don’t effectively control it anymore. Our fisheries are out on permanent loan to big business.

Gettin’ yer sea legs

Given this understanding, what should be on the "lets improve fisheries management outcomes together" agenda? All fisheries need help, after all, not just those with (or without) ITQs in place.

Within ecosystem constraints, management programs should consider the societal goals the community would like to achieve from its fisheries and develop governance arrangements, including the design of access rights (if any are desired and required) around those societal goals. Our nation’s fisheries need protecting and conserving through management systems that incorporate sound science, an ecosystem-based approach, and fair community participation.

Ethicureans concerned about how their food is produced, as well as what’s in it, would do well to view ITQs -- along with Open Ocean Aquaculture (OOA) -- as the current frontline issues in the resistance against corporate takeover of the public’s fishery resources.

Current ITQ battlegrounds include the Gulf of Mexico grouper and tilefish fishery, and the Pacific groundfish fishery.

Let's give a fisherman the last word. Here's Bob Storrs, a captain and native commercial fisherman from Alaska:

Depending upon whether a person or a resource stands to gain or lose, ITQs are either like diamonds or herpes in that they are forever. There has never been a case where a fishery, once privatized, has ever been taken back into public custody. There are no second chances in this giveaway... Programs must move beyond the current trend towards corporatized fisheries, and modify our practices to achieve goals for conservation and for coastal communities. Access should be awarded to fishermen who minimize bycatch and prevent damage to the sea floor, and management should support the continued existence of independent fishing families.

More information on ITQs is available from Food & Water Watch’s fish program. You can also see a fisherman’s perspective on the issue here, or a common-property guru's perspective on ITQs here.

Ben Bowman is a Policy Analyst in the San Francisco office of Food & Water Watch, a non-profit consumer organization that works to ensure clean water and safe food for all. Prior to joining the organization, Ben served as Principal Strategic Analyst, Fisheries, for the State Government of Victoria, Australia.

Fish photo courtesy of istock photo.

2 Responsesto “Beware: Pirates patrol these waters”

  1. Mark Powell says:

    ITQs are not a solution for everything, as Ben points out.  But they're also not the great evil that he suggests with his anti-corporate complaints. 

    Cooler heads suggest that ITQs are a valuable tool that can help advance conservation when done properly, as part of a sustainable management plan with science-based limits on fishing.  Duh. 

    Click here for more on my view on ITQs:

  2. Sam Fromartz says:

    Bowman's critique brings to mind something Charles Clover, author of End of the Line, once said to me: "Who speaks for the fish?"
    Bowman criticizes ITQs for:
    "The loss of jobs, exclusion of new fishery entrants, ratcheting down of labor wages, the increased bycatch and economic discards (throwing away the fish of least value to maximize the value of the fish they bring to land, which are the ones counted under the quota), inequities in access to public resources, and other serious problems for fishermen and coastal communities ..."
    Leaving aside bycatch (which ITQ proponents say falls because the race to catch fish is reduced), there's no mention of FISH in his critique. I would have thought the biggest criticism of ITQs was that they don't work because more fish are caught. But apparently they do work, as the Science study points out.
    As Mark Powell points out, ITQs are not a panacea and protecting communities and fisherman's rights should be designed into these market-guided schemes. But the fisherman will be gone in any case if there are no fish to catch. Just look at Canadian cod fisherman.