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Catch Shares: Is EDF Contradicting Itself?

Author, Charles Mann, with a hefty gag grouper.

Catch shares have been the hot topic of conversation around fisheries management for the last several years. In an apparent effort by certain environmental groups to push through catch shares at all costs, (and with what seems like full support from the NMFS), the efforts really cut against this author's notion of environmentally sound practices.

In the broad sense, catch shares allocate a specific portion of a fishery to specific fisherman. Supporters of catch shares cite increased efficiency that theoretically results in greater sustainability as the rationale for these programs. However, the practical result of catch shares really just appears to be consolidation of a resource into the hands of a few.

EDF and other environmental groups have a history of opposing large scale farming and other agricultural operations. Therefore, why do these groups support programs in fisheries management that are geared to give rise to larger more industrial type operations?

Many traditional land based agricultural operations could certainly also argue that larger industrial type operations are more efficient. Yet, EDF and other similar groups almost uniformly oppose such large operations. Current “green” notions such as slow food and other similar movements support smaller local operations that serve their regional or local community….or better yet, allow for an individual to grow and harvest some of his or her own food.

Interestingly, groups involved in the slow food movement are beginning to question catch shares, if not in theory, at least in practice. In fact, Food and Water Watch recently filed an amicus brief (friend of the court brief) in one federal action challenging catch shares. For those who like to buy local, or better yet, harvest your own food for consumption, the result of catch shares should cause significant concern. Instead of smaller scale commercial harvesters that often supply local markets and restaurants, larger operations often have the connections and infrastructure to send the harvest to far away places in search of the highest prices.

Further, to the extent that concerns about the eventual invasion of catch shares into the recreational arena prove to be true, these programs could keep the average person from going out and catching a dinner for the family from time to time. Unlike other agricultural practices where the farmer largely “produces” the eventual food product, commercial fishing is purely a harvest of a resource that is produced without the help of human beings. There is a conceptual principal that supports spreading the opportunity to harvest to a larger group rather than consolidating into fewer larger hands, particularly when the other environmental benefits of such operations are highly speculative at best.

Supporters of catch shares have recently criticized certain Republican legislators for opposing catch shares. As part of this effort, some groups have labelled those legislators as being against the creation of property rights and being more “anti-environment” than “pro-market”. However, our fisheries are a resource that is otherwise being utilized by many different stakeholders. Putting those resources into the hands of only a few doesn't seem like a sound practice to me. In this author's opinion, the only thing “green” about catch shares is the shifting of money from the hands of many into the hands of a few.

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