March 2007  
A New Approach to Fisheries Management
by Cameron Walker

A recent symposium at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in San Francisco looked at how fishermen might benefit from putting boundaries on the ocean's bounty.


Oceans once seemed limitless. Shakespeare's Juliet even compared her expansive feelings for Romeo to these wide waters: "My bounty is as boundless as the sea." And other literary—and flesh-and-blood—shore dwellers have thought the same. But with dwindling fish populations and struggling small-scale fisheries, some researchers have started to think that putting boundaries on the ocean's bounty through dedicated access privileges is the best way to address the growing fisheries problem.

In particular, divvying up the ocean's space may hold the most promise, particularly for smaller, traditional fisheries, says UC Davis researcher James Wilen. With 3D mapping, GPS and other technologies, Wilen says that fisheries managers are very close to being able to design any space-based system they want for assigning access to the ocean.

Wilen and others spoke at a fisheries symposium at the recent American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting, which focused on sustainability.

In the past, fishing villages in traditional societies relied on a chief or other leader to manage fisheries—letting people know through taboos or other rules where, when, and how much they could fish. According to Daniel Pauly, a fisheries scientist at the University of British Columbia, a shift away from these traditional fisheries to large-scale industrial fishing is threatening oceans. Small-scale fisheries, Pauly says, use far less fuel per fish caught than industrial fleets, provide more jobs and reduce the amount of bycatch (fish caught unintentionally while bringing in the desired species). Setting aside larger areas for exclusive use of these fisheries could bring in more of these benefits for local communities and reduce demands on fish.

Innovative TURF

Dedicated access privileges divide up the ocean, giving fisherman either a share of a total allowable catch or rights to part of a fishing area. Most fisheries that distribute fishing access do it through tradable quotas, which cover close to 150 fish species; only a few studies have looked at dividing up fisheries by space. These systems, known as territorial use rights in fisheries (TURFs), are "probably the only way that we can manage fisheries in developing countries," says UC Davis' Wilen.

Wilen and colleagues have studied these systems in Japan and Chile. Through surveys, interviews, and census data, he's studying how these groups form, how they work, and how they compare with other plans like tradable quotas.

The Japanese system has roots in the country's feudal past. Coastal groups were once given rights to manage resources. Now, modern-day fisheries management organizations in many areas serve the same role. In the 1960s, one of Japan's pink shrimp fisheries suffered from an all-out effort to catch a limited number of shrimp. The shrimp that fisherman did catch were small and sold to low-quality markets. In 1968, a fishery management organization came together to improve the fishery. Each day, 22 fishermen met to determine how the fishing fleet would use the ocean space, sending each boat out to a specific area.

When fishermen first talked about the plan, they worried some boats would find empty waters while others hit the jackpot. The group decided to pool fishing revenue and redistribute it so no one would lose out. Now fishing boats bring back fewer shrimp—and get more money from a higher-value catch; households that use the pooling system reap bigger profits than those that don't. Wilen called the system "a very successful endeavor."

But systems that parcel out space don't always help fish or fishermen, he says. In Chile, enforcement of similar programs has broken down in areas where people are extremely poor. Some fishing stocks are so unproductive that some fishermen find the system isn't worth it.

"If the development process is not happening," UBC's Pauly says, "this is not going to work."

Access Off the Cape

In many fisheries in the United States, boats are allowed a certain number of days on the water, or a certain season in which to catch. So the pressure's on to catch as much as possible within the given time. "Nothing rapacious about this," says Rod Fujita, an Environmental Defense marine ecologist. "It's what any business would do." With large, efficient gear, it's easy to catch too much, or to pick up bycatch along the way.

In Chatham, Massachusetts, a town that sits on the elbow of Cape Cod's curved arm, sprawling homes and tourism have started to edge out the fishing life on land. On the water, catches have dwindled. Regulations tried to limit fishing by cutting days at sea, limiting number of trips, vessel size, horsepower, and closing down areas. "But basically, it hasn't dented overfishing," says Paul Parker, the executive director of the Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fishermen's Association.

This Cape Cod group is trying to transition to sustainable fishing through a dedicated access program of its own. Hook-and-line fishermen in Chatham came up with a community-based program that puts a limit on the total allowable catch and requires weekly, and sometimes daily, reports on the fish caught. In the Georges Bank hook sector, members have been given a percentage of the total allowable catch for cod, and fish for them only in the Georges Bank area. In 2004-2005, they pulled in a little over 290,000 pounds of cod, less than half of their allotment.

By limiting the amount of fish reeled in, fishing becomes more about trying to boost the value of each share, explains Fujita. Bycatch often drops, and there's more compliance with the total allowable catch—results that Fujita says are supported by a forthcoming study from the Colorado-based Redstone Strategy Group looking at tradable fishing quotas in North American fisheries.

These limits also take a toll on fishermen. "Vessels, and crews, and some captains lose their jobs," Fujita says. But the jobs that remain get better, he says, because of more secure access to fishing rights.

So far, Chatham's fishing groups haven't seen cod rebounding in response to lower fishing levels, and the fishing culture still stands on shaky ground. "It's not a gigantic success story from the participant's perspective," Parker says. "I've never seen people so afraid...we've never seen so few codfish."

But, Parker says, people are still interested because of the program's social benefits and a similar system for gillnet fishing will start this May. These fishermen, Parker says, are looking toward the future. "If the stocks rebuild and people can bring them in, that's what keeps people going."

Even when the benefits of switching from an open-access ocean to a more-limited one aren't immediately apparent, speakers at the conference felt a shift in mindset about open access is needed to recover fisheries and fish sustainably. "Do we stick with the conventional approach...or do we try to adapt and fashion policies with this stewardship ethic?" Fujita asks. "I would argue that it's a tradeoff that's worth the risk."