- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 27, 2010

This nation’s federal marine fisheries management policies were adrift at sea. Decades of ineffective management and overfishing resulted in a steady downward spiral of collapsed fisheries, lost commercial fishing jobs and declining recreational fishing opportunities. Finally, however, there is reason for optimism, based upon a new draft fisheries management policy on “catch shares,” announced recently by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the agency responsible for America’s marine fisheries.

Catch shares have been used successfully in hundreds of fisheries around the world, but only recently gained high-level support in the United States during the last years of the Bush administration. In a city that seems bereft of bipartisan agreement on anything, it is heartening to see this promising management tool now being promoted by the Obama administration.

The failure of our marine fisheries is reflected in an onslaught of depressing statistics. Despite a statutory requirement to prevent overfishing, only 25 percent of marine fisheries in federal waters off our coasts are known to be sustainably managed and more than 50 stocks of fish are considered either overfished or undergoing overfishing. The collapse of the North Atlantic cod fishery in the 1990s caused the loss of an estimated 20,000 jobs and $350 million in New England’s economy alone. As for iconic fisheries like the halibut in Alaska or red snapper in the Gulf, traditional management tools involving season lengths, gear restrictions and size limits only exacerbated the situation, creating unsafe derbylike “races to the fish.”

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With NOAA’s December announcement of new draft fisheries’ management policy, we finally have a reasonable and potentially successful management tool on the horizon. Under a well-designed catch share plan, commercial fishermen know exactly how much fish they can catch each year, either in their individual capacity, as part of a cooperative, or a community enterprise. Each recipient of a catch share is then held directly accountable through enhanced monitoring to stop fishing when the specific quota is reached.

In exchange for greater accountability, catch share programs give participating fishermen broad flexibility on when and how to fish, significantly improving their bottom line. With greater freedom on timing their catch, dockside prices rise as fishermen deliver a better product over a longer span of time, avoiding the glut of fish that used to arrive during prior, compressed seasons. And safety of the fleets is enhanced: If the weather is terrible, a boat can stay in port, confident that its window of fishing opportunity is not going to slip away. As overfished stocks recover, catch limits are expanded, benefiting both commercial and recreational fishermen alike.

A remarkable success story lies in the Gulf’s red snapper fishery. For the second year in a row under a catch share plan, commercial fishermen have come in under their total allowable catch limit, leaving more fish in the Gulf to regrow the stock. This great conservation benefit has helped fishermen financially, improving dockside prices for red snapper by almost 20 percent since 2006. Moreover, a new stock assessment of the red snapper fishery in the Gulf shows that it is now recovering much faster than anticipated. Fishermen will see their allowable catch increase substantially in 2010.

Congress should respond thoughtfully with regard to the future of our nation’s fishermen and the fisheries upon which they depend. A real solution that will keep fishermen afloat is to accelerate the transition to catch shares. Congress should: (1) Urge NOAA to permanently adopt its draft catch shares policy, and (2) provide much-needed funding to accelerate the restoration of our marine fisheries, making closed seasons and lost fishing opportunities a thing of the past. Well-designed catch share plans may not be the solution for every fishery’s problems, but they are a proven and flexible management tool that deserves bipartisan support from Congress.

Theodore Roosevelt IV has served on the boards of numerous conservation organizations and is a lifelong outdoor recreation enthusiast. James Walsh spent 20 years representing the 25th Congressional District of New York in the U.S. House of Representatives and is an avid recreational fisherman who currently represents various fishing and conservation interests.

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