A new animation out from the Center for Investigative Reporting makes sense of the wonky and wacky world of individualized transferable quotas, or catch shares, which were ostensibly meant as a solution to overfishing. “If a small group of people owned the fish, they might take better care of them,” explains the animated grandpa in the video.
It’s not totally clear whether the catch-share system, implemented across the U.S. in 2011, has helped fish populations rebound. But it has helped large corporate fishing operations at the expense of small fisher-people, according to an investigation by CIR.
Fishing quotas, which are based on past fishing levels, can be sold on the open market, making it easier for fat-cat corporations to scoop up as many as they can afford. The system initially only allowed fishing with trawlers in certain areas — a type of fishing that has caused heavy environmental destruction.
Thousands of jobs have been lost in regions across the United States where catch-share management plans have been implemented, researchers have noted.
There are 15 catch-share systems in the United States, stretching from the North Pacific’s frigid gray waters along the coast of Alaska and the Aleutian Islands down to the Gulf of Mexico.
More than 3,700 vessels are no longer active in the 10 defined fishing areas that have operated under catch shares since before 2010. That could account for as many as 18,000 lost jobs, according to estimates from researchers who track the fishing industry.
In its investigation, CIR turned up fishy claims made by the Environmental Defense Fund about the advanced state of ocean life degradation due to overfishing (since debunked), and a lot of concern about the concentration of deep blue wealth and power.
Most researchers and managers acknowledge that the system will shrink the fishing fleet, hitting independent, small-scale fishermen the hardest, while protecting big corporate fleets.
“No matter what you do, there is a dynamic that is going to unfold in predictable ways, toward the concentration of wealth and away from public participation,” said Bonnie McCay, an anthropologist at Rutgers University who was a member of a National Research Council panel assembled by Congress in the late 1990s to assess catch shares.
And as for catch shares actually replenishing the oceans? The facts don’t appear to back up quota-promoters.
Nearly half of the 128 fish populations that have been subject to overfishing since 2003 now are thriving, having been fully rebuilt over the past decade, according to government records. Five of those populations have been rebuilt under catch-shares management – the St. Matthew Island blue king crab, snow crab, Pacific coast widow rockfish, Gulf of Mexico red snapper and Atlantic windowpane flounder, according to Connie Barclay, a spokeswoman for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Barclay said it would be hard to attribute rebuilding to catch shares in any of those cases.
[Lee] Crockett, director of federal fisheries policy for the Pew Environment Group, agrees and credits the rebuilding to strict catch limits, which the government began to institute in 2006.
The difference between catch limits and catch shares “is a distinction I think that is often deliberately conflated” by the government and groups advocating for the new system, Crockett said.
The full investigation is important, but the video is the best part, especially if you aren’t familiar with the catch-share scene. CIR’s ultimate take on whether catch shares have helped put a damper on overfishing, delivered by cartoon grandpa: “The thing is, we’re not sure.” Grandpa, you’re so diplomatic.