We found the article “Free Market Answer to Saving Ocean Fisheries” (January/February 2004) interesting. Based on our foundation’s experiences, however, we would like to add a few comments and a cautionary note.
The McIntosh Foundation and its founders have a long history with the Alaskan fishing industry. The people who incorporated the foundation had a financial interest in the NAKAT company, which for many years was the largest salmon packer in southeast Alaska. And for the past 20 years the foundation has also supported the Boat Company, a project that runs conservation-oriented boat tours in the same area. Our involvement with these two outfits has taught us that while the individual fishing quotas described in the article are a good idea, the devil is in the details.
Consider the case of the Southeastern Alaskan halibut catch. Each year, quotas for the halibut catch are established by the International Pacific Halibut Commission (IPHC). Once the IPHC has established the quota for the southeast Alaska region, the Northern Pacific Fisheries Management Council (NPFMC) divvies it up into subsidiary quotas for the various groups in the region. For this coming year, the IPHC allocated southeast Alaska a catch of approximately 13 million pounds, or about 17 percent of the estimated total halibut population in the area. NPFMC then set the catch limits for the commercial fleets (10.5 million pounds), the guided charter fishing groups (1.4 million pounds), the sports fishermen (1.2 million pounds), the subsistence/rural groups (170,000 pounds), and the allowable by-catch (approximately 200,000 pounds).
Last spring, the issue of how to distribute the 170,000 pounds allotted to subsistence/rural groups was tackled by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), which instituted a permit system. Statewide to date, almost 12,000 permits have been issued, of which 7,300 were given to southeast Alaska residents. That’s 62 percent of the permits for an area that represents approximately 10 percent of the state’s population.
That demographic anomaly is only part of the problem. As arrangements stand, subsistence and rural fishermen are likely to greatly exceed their catch limit for the year, with NMFS none the wiser. Why?
Subsistence/rural fishers with permits are allowed to use a line with up to 30 hooks and to catch up to 20 fish daily. If the 7,300 permit recipients in Southeast Alaska only fished a half dozen times a year and kept just two fish each trip, at an average weight of 30 pounds (considerably below The Boat Company’s average), the total catch for this group would come close to 3 million pounds—vastly greater than the 170,000 pounds allocated.
While the commercial and charter fleets will have to keep accurate records on each fish they land, NMFS will rely on an end-of-year survey conducted by the Alaska Department of Fish & Game to determine the poundage that sports fishing, subsistence, and rural groups catch. This survey asks only that a select number of permit holders try to recall the number and approximate weight of the halibut they caught the previous year.
We believe that all groups, commercial and noncommercial, should be required to keep accurate counts of the halibut they catch. If they don’t, then the halibut are likely to be over-fished just as the salmon were in the 1950s. During that decade, most of the fish packed by NAKAT’s canneries were caught in traps that proved so efficient we and our competitors were depleting the supply of fish and seeing sharp declines in our yearly pack. The situation became so dire that by the end of the decade, with our industry unwilling or unable to regulate itself, the federal government stepped in and bailed all of us out by outlawing the traps. Hoping a similar problem can be avoided, our foundation filed official comments with the IPHC urging that all user-groups be required to keep accurate counts of their catch.
In short, individual fishing quotas may be a good management tool for at least some of the fisheries, but the details matter. Since we are all looking to the long-term vs. short-term economic benefits of the resource, it would be a shame if it came a cropper due to a lack of adequate reporting.
—Michael A. McIntosh
President, The McIntosh Foundation, Washington, D.C.