A smart new way to save the fisheries

Individual quotas help prevent mad fishing orgies

The solution to saving the world’s fish may lie in giving fishermen greater ownership of the seas, according to a new study in the journal Science. Whether Canadians agree or not may depend on which coast they live on.

Conventional fishing quotas lead to a “race to fish,” in which everyone hauls as many fish out of the water as quickly as possible. For example, group quotas pushed Alaskan halibut fishermen to compress their season into a three-day fishing orgy that stripped the sea bare, lowered prices and left a number of fishermen dead. Individual transferable quotas (ITQs), on the other hand, guarantee fishermen a fixed share of a yearly quota and allow them to sell this right to others. With catch-share property rights in place, argues economist Christopher Costello of the University of California (and co-author of the Science study), “fishermen have a financial incentive to take the long-term view.”

“Having an ITQ is like owning a house versus renting an apartment,” says Costello. “If you own it, you’re going to take better care of it.” Keeping an eye on the future in this way results in fishing at a slower and more sustainable rate using gentler methods. His study of 11,000 fisheries worldwide found that areas with transferable quotas were less likely to suffer declines, and many collapsed fisheries rebounded once such quotas were in place. Given recent trends suggesting the world’s major fisheries could collapse by 2048, Costello’s evidence seems welcome relief.

Costello says Canada is already “a world leader” in individual quotas and could benefit from their wider adoption. The B.C. halibut fishery, for instance, was one of the first in North America to use the system in 1991. It’s been so successful that Alaska adopted a similar program to fix its own halibut fishery. Yet individual quotas were also in place in Newfoundland when the cod disappeared in ’92. The problem then was quotas set too high for political reasons. “Around the world, catch-shares work extremely well,” says Costello. “But you still need to get the science right.”

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.