Researchers may have found a away to avert the doom many predict for commercial fisheries around the world. A system in which individuals are apportioned a fixed share of each year’s catch shows great promise in averting the collapse of fish stocks, according to a new study, in contrast to traditional “open access” rules in which fishermen compete to bring in the biggest load. “Under open access, you have a free-for-all race to fish, which ultimately leads to collapse,” said [lead researcher] Christopher Costello…. “But when you allocate shares of the catch, then there is an incentive to protect the stock, which reduces collapse. We saw this across the globe” [Reuters].
The results are a rare bit of good news in the debate over what’s to be done about the world’s fisheries; in a previous study, researchers predicted that if overfishing, pollution and habitat destruction continue unabated, all of the world’s fisheries would collapse by 2048. A fishery is considered collapsed if catches fall to 10% of historic highs [Los Angeles Times].
The researchers looked at data from more than 11,000 commercial fisheries around the world, of which 121 had established ownership share systems between 1950 and 2003. Collapse rates were so much lower in the share systems, they concluded, that they saw “the potential for greatly altering the future of global fisheries” [The New York Times]. However, the researchers cautioned that the system is common in only a few places (it has caught on in Alaska, Iceland, Australia, and New Zealand), and said there was no guarantee that the approach would work everywhere.
In the study, which will be published tomorrow in Science [subscription required], researchers describe a “catch share” system in which each year’s total catch is determined by scientists, and the shares of that catch are held by individuals, cooperatives and communities. The idea is that fishers with a guaranteed cut needn’t race each other to grab their share, and can use smaller boats and more selective equipment. “Owners of [a share] should have an interest in the long-term health of the fishery, as a growing stock automatically means a bigger catch,” says Costello [New Scientist]. The shares are also transferable, and increase in value as the amount of fish they represent go up.
DISCOVER explains how the dwindling stocks of a small, oily, bony, unappetizing fish can affect an entire ecosystem in the article, “The Most Important Fish in the Sea.”