The Wonders of Cap and Trade (for Fishermen)

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On May 1, a sea change swept over the New England fishing industry as the government instituted fundamental changes in the way the local fisheries are managed. To hear the howls of protest, you'd think the feds had just proposed to drain the ocean in an attempt to put every last fisherman out of business.

The truth is that the new system, called "catch shares," or sectors, has worked in fisheries around the world since the concept was born in New Zealand, Australia, and Iceland in the 1970s. In most cases, sectors result in a win-win-win situation for the environment, fishermen, and consumers. Despite reams of evidence and testimony from fishermen, it seems like the wheel has to be reinvented every time catch shares are introduced to a new area.

The concept behind catch shares is straightforward. First you set a scientifically sound limit on the amount of fish that can be sustainably taken from a given fishery. Then you allot a guaranteed percentage of that limit to groups of individual fishermen. If the fish population thrives and the total limit gets increased, the amount that can be taken by each shareholder goes up. In essence fishermen get an ownership stake in the health of the fishery.

In 2008, the Environmental Defense Fund assembled a team of 30 specialists to examine how 10 North American catch-share fisheries were faring. Their report, "Sustaining America's Fisheries and Fishing Communities: An Evaluation of Incentive-Based Management," showed that catch-share fisheries were twice as likely to stay within legal limits as were non-catch-share operations. Overall, catch-share fisheries undershot their limits by 5 percent. Bycatch, the industry term for unwanted or illegal fish that have to be thrown overboard, usually dead, dropped by 40 percent.

Most importantly from the fishing industry's standpoint, revenues per boat actually increased by 80 percent. And the chance of getting hurt—a big issue in an industry where jobs are 35 times more dangerous than the average American job (much more dangerous than mining)—was cut by more than half.

There is a downside to sectors. Some fishermen do drop by the wayside, often those who fish only a small amount of time. And the total number of jobs can decrease, although the remaining jobs tend to be steadier full-time positions, rather than part-time gigs.

If the New England fishermen want to assuage their fears, they should talk to members of the Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fishermen's Association. That small, boutique fishery adopted catch shares in 2004. At the time, according to Eric Hesse, a member of the association, it was all but certain that he would be out of business in a few years if things continued going in the direction they were headed. Today he's confident that his kids, if so inclined, will be able to take over his boat someday.

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Barry Estabrook is a former contributing editor at Gourmet magazine. He is the author of the recently released Tomatoland, a book about industrial tomato agriculture. He blogs at politicsoftheplate.com. More

Barry Estabrook was formerly a contributing editor at Gourmet magazine. Stints working on a dairy farm and commercial fishing boat as a young man convinced him that writing about how food was produced was a lot easier than actually producing it. He is the author of the recently released Tomatoland, a book about industrial tomato agriculture. He lives on a 30-acre tract in Vermont, where he gardens and tends a dozen laying hens, and his work also appears at politicsoftheplate.com.

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