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Words to Consider: Michael Conathan

August 28, 2011

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…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.

That’s Michael Conathan in his weekly Fish on Fridays column at the Center for American Progress.  He suggests the way forward in New England and elsewhere is to invest in better fisheries science, rather than job protection measures.  These measures are popular since the implementation of an easy-to-demonize catch shares program.  But the data show the job losses were already happening:

New England’s groundfishery, which includes species of cod, haddock, and flounders, is among the most controversial fisheries to transition to a catch-share system—in this case, a structure known as sector management—which took effect in 2010. While opponents argue that the new system is decimating fishing communities and destroying jobs, history shows little difference between job loss under sectors and under the previous management system. From 1996 through 2007, with the fishery operating in a noncatch-share system, the number of vessels landing groundfish declined by 40 percent. This decline was not reversed in the first year of sectors but it did not get any worse, either.

Meanwhile, stocks are showing signs of recovery, and catch limits have gone up in 2011.

I’d also add that Congress should invest in more social science research into catch share programs.  Catch share programs need to tailored to context and carefully implemented, and we don’t yet understand how to do that very well.  Even if the jobs losses were happening, it is clear that the New England sector management scheme had poor local support and was a PR botch.

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