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The Theory of Catch Shares

February 27, 2012

A new study evaluates the impacts of catch share management in the U.S. and Canada, finding:

[C]atch shares result in environmental improvements, economic improvements, and a mixture of changes in social performance, relative to the race for fish under traditional management. Environmentally, compliance with total allowable catch increases and discards decrease. Economically, vessel yields rise, total revenues grow, and long-term stock increases are encouraged. Socially, safety increases, some port areas modestly consolidate, needed processing capacity often reduces, and labor markets shift from part time jobs to full time jobs with similar total employment.

Here’s a good graphic:

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I find the evaluation compelling, and I again turn to think on the theory of catch share management.  Why does it work?  The standard argument is based in economics: the incentives are not properly aligned. As the authors write:

Traditional management fisheries are non-catch share fisheries that use any or all of the following management tools: limited entry, effort control, trip limits, and total catch limits…this style of management contains inherent imbalances. In theory, it reins in overfishing through input and output controls that limit how a fisherman can fish and how much a fisherman can produce. In practice, fisherman innovation leads to increased fishing capacity and effort, which then leads to progressively more Draconian command-and-control measures…This process locks fishermen into a cycle of increasing effort and control called the “race for fish.” In a race for fish, fisheries are closed either for the remainder of the season or until the next pre-determined opening as soon as the TAC is reached. Thus, an individual fisherman must catch the fish quickly; otherwise, other fishermen will catch the limited supply of fish. This situation has negative environmental, economic, and social repercussions…

Catch shares remedy the shortcomings of traditional management by directly addressing the common property problem of rival, non-excludable fish stocks. As each fisherman’s stake in the fishery is secure, there is no incentive to race for fish. Similarly, since the value of a fisherman’s quota is directly dependent on the long-term stock level, there is an incentive to support long-term management for high biomass levels. By changing fishery management institutions to properly align incentives, catch shares can end the race for fish, helping to avoid fisheries’ collapse.

I wonder if we might also find important explanations in political science.  Could there also be separate and equally important learning and trust building processes that are occurring alongside this change to the economic institutions?  And perhaps the absence or failure of these processes explain why sometimes catch share programs do not work, or are slow to get off the ground, and why sometimes traditional management succeeds?

A great deal of collaboration and communications work goes into implementing catch shares, and I suggest that increased private enterprise-government interactions may increase participants’ knowledge of fisheries science and levels of trust of public managers.  As I have pointed out before, fishermen may be prone to a ‘sampling bias’ and see fish as being more abundant than they really are.  And fishermen may have little trust in the objectivity of the science when their views are challenged.  In some cases, you even hear discussion of conspiracies by environmentalists to stop all fishing.

Going forward, I would enjoy seeing research into fishermen’s knowledge and trust in government before and after transitions to catch shares.

Grimm, D., Barkhorn, I., Festa, D., Bonzon, K., Boomhower, J., Hovland, V., & Blau, J. (2012). Assessing catch shares’ effects evidence from Federal United States and associated British Columbian fisheries Marine Policy, 36 (3), 644-657 DOI: 10.1016/j.marpol.2011.10.014

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