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Moratorium on Individual Fishing Quotas Should Be Lifted WASHINGTON -- To help curb overfishing and protect the economic viability of the fishing industry, Congress should lift the ban on allocating exclusive fishing privileges to individuals in U.S. fisheries and give the eight regional management councils flexibility to design and manage quota programs, says a new report* by a committee of the National Research Council.
Individual quotas permit each fisherman to take a percentage of total allowable catch for a certain species during the fishing season. Oncean individual quota is reached, the fisherman is restricted from fishing for that species until the next year. Four U.S. fisheries -- Alaskan halibut and sablefish, wreckfish, and the combined surf clams and ocean quahog fishery -- began quota programs before Congress established a moratorium on new ones in 1996.
This ban was enacted because of concerns about whether quotas were being distributed fairly and their economic effects on the fishing industry and fishing-dependent communities. Even so, the committee said, evidence from existing quota programs suggests that they prompt fishermen to fish more efficiently and make more economical investments in equipment and technology, which could help protect vulnerable fish populations. In addition, quotas eliminate the competition to catch the most fish spurred by short fishing seasons, and improve the quality of fish available to consumers throughout the year.
"Many species of fish in the United States are being overexploited, threatening not only the continuity of certain fisheries, but also the economic livelihoods of those who depend on the fishing industry," said committee chair Jan Stevens, former assistant attorney general, California Department of Justice, Sacramento. "Allocating individual quotas has led to more efficient fishing when other methods -- such as limiting fishing seasons or restricting the type of gear used -- only intensified the race for catching the most fish. Management councils should be allowed to consider individual fishing quotas as an option for maintaining an optimum level of fishing. In turn, councils must take steps to ensure that the effects of quotas on all members of the fishing community, including skippers, crews, and processors, are adequately addressed."
Managers of U.S. fisheries in federally governed ocean waters usually set a limit on the total amount of fish that can be caught based on scientists' estimates of fish populations needed to continue to produce stable yields. Rather than permitting fishermen to catch all they can until theoverall limit is reached, assigning individual quotas reduces the pressure on fishermen or companies to buy more boats or sophisticated gear to maximize their catch -- which could lead to overfishing and inefficient investments in fishing equipment. Safety also improves because fishermen have greater flexibility in choosing when to fish, and are not compelled to work in unsafe conditions.
Before the ban on new fishing quota programs was enacted, quotas usually were allocated free of charge to those fishermen already participating in the fishery. Under these programs, fishermen can sell or lease their quotas to others and gain windfall profits. Fishermen or companies with more resources are able to buy out the fishing quotas of smaller competitors. And new fishermen who are not initially assigned quotas have a difficult time gaining entry into a fishery.
Moreover, since a goal of most fishing quota programs is to reduce the number of fishermen who have access to a particular stock or geographic area, some fishermen ultimately lose their jobs, and the economies of surrounding communities become vulnerable.
Regional fishery management councils should determine on a case-by-case basis whether individual quotas are necessary, the committee said. These councils should decide who is eligible, how quotas should be allocated, whether they can be sold or leased, and how many shares can be accumulated. Congress should require any council considering a program to define a maximum amount of quota that an individual is allowed to accumulate, to prevent fishermen from buying up quota sharesand eliminating competition.
Rather than automatically assigning initial quota shares free of charge to vessel owners who historically have participated in the fishery, councils should demonstrate that they have considered a variety of different methods for distributing the quotas, the committee said. Congress should permit management councils to charge fees when fishingquotas are allocated, sold, or leased. Fees will help spread the profits from initial sales of quotas more evenly and will allow fisheries to recover the costs for administering these programs. Councils also could hold auctions to require initial participants to pay for fishing quotas.
Interested parties other than vessel owners should be considered for receiving quota shares, the committee said. For example, quotas also might be assigned to skippers and crew members, who often are paid based on their catch and assume financial and physical risks. Under law, quota programs are required to provide mechanisms for new entrants to participate in fisheries. However, these efforts should not increase the total number of shares awarded.
In addition, a central registry system for quota permits required by law should be established by the National Marine Fisheries Service as soon as possible. Such a system would increase lenders' confidence in quota programs and make it easier for fishermen to get financing for purchasing quotas. Many fishermen, especially those who are new to a particular fishery, have trouble obtaining financing from lending institutions unfamiliar with quota programs.
Planning Quota Programs
Regional fishery management councils should ensure that all groups with an interest in how fishing quotas are developed and managed areadequately represented on advisory panels, the committee said. Vessel owners, skippers, crew members, processors, environmental groups, and others should be included. The objectives of eachprogram and the means for achieving these objectives should be clearly specified
Congress should provide funding for management councils and states to collect nationwide data on local economic effects of fisheries management programs, the report says. In addition, evaluating short- and long-term biological impacts of fishing quota programsshould be a high priority for management councils. Although impact assessments are now required by law, they often are not supported with adequate resources. Each fishery management plan that includes quotas should be regularly reviewed and evaluated.
The study was funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The National Research Council is the principal operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering. It is a private, non-profit institution that provides independent advice on science and technology issues under a congressional charter. A committee roster follows.