A New Approach to Managing Fisheries
A rights-based system could help rebuild industry profits as well as fishing stocks.
Most commercial fisheries in the United States suffer from overfishing or inefficient harvesting or both. As a result, hundreds of millions of dollars in potential income is lost to the fishing industry, fishing communities, and the general economy. Excessive fishing effort has also resulted in higher rates of unintentional bycatch mortality of nontargeted fish, seabirds, and marine mammals, and in more ecological damage than necessary to benthic organisms from trawls, dredges, and other fishing gear.
These documented losses underscore the nation’s failure to manage its fisheries efficiently or sustainably. The problems have been addressed through a wide variety of regulatory controls over entry, effort, gear, fishing seasons and locations, size, and catch. Yet the Sustainable Fisheries Act of 1996 emphasized the continuing need to stop overfishing and to rebuild stocks. In the management councils of specific fisheries, there is sometimes bitter debate about the best way to achieve this turnaround.
Particularly contentious are management regimes based on the allocation of rights to portions of the total allowable catch (TAC) to eligible participants in a fishery: so-called rights-based fishing management systems. Best known among rights- based regimes are individual transferable quota (ITQ) systems, in which individual license holders in a fishery are assigned fractions of the TAC adopted by the fishery managers, and these quotas are transferable among license holders by sale or lease.
Opinion on the merits of rights-based management regimes is divided. Within a single fishery, some operators might strongly favor shifting to a rights-based regime and other operators strongly oppose such a move. Among academic experts, economists generally favor the adoption of such systems for their promise of greater efficiency and stronger conservation incentives, but other social scientists decry the potential disruption of fishing communities by market processes and the attrition of fishing jobs and livelihoods. These divisions are reflected in the political arena. The U.S. Senate, responding to constituent concerns in some fishing states, used the 1996 Sustainable Fisheries Act to impose a moratorium on the development of ITQ systems by any fisheries management council and on the approval of any ITQ system by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). A recent National Research Council committee report, Sharing the Fish, which examined these controversies, is no more than a carefully balanced exposition of pros and cons, though the committee did recommend that Congress rescind its moratorium. Despite support from some senators, that recommendation has not been adopted, and the moratorium has recently been extended.
Only four U.S. marine fisheries operate under such regimes: the Atlantic bluefin tuna purse seine fishery, the mid-Atlantic surf clam and ocean quahog fishery, the Alaskan halibut and sablefish fishery, and the South Atlantic wreckfish fishery. In all four, there are too few years of data from which to draw firm conclusions regarding the long-term consequences. However, in all but one there have been significant short-term benefits. Excess capacity has been reduced, fishing seasons have been extended, fleet utilization has improved, and fishermen’s incomes have risen in all but the small wreckfish fishery, in which effort and catch have declined. Quota holders have adjusted their operations in various ways to increase the value of the harvest, by providing fresh catch year round, for example, or by targeting larger, more valuable prey.
Some other fishing nations, notably Iceland and New Zealand, use rights-based regimes to manage nearly all their commercial fisheries. Still others, such as Canada and Australia, use such regimes in quite a few of their fisheries. A recent overview by the international Food and Agriculture Organization finds that rights-based systems have generated higher incomes and financial viability, greater economic stability, improved product quality, reduced bycatch, and a compensation mechanism for operators leaving the fishery. The corresponding costs are higher monitoring and enforcement costs, typically borne by industry; reduced employment and some greater degree of concentration as excess capacity is eliminated; and increased high-grading in some fisheries as operators seek to maximize their quota values.
Experience with rights-based management indicates that it also promotes conservative harvesting by assuring quota holders of a share of any increase in future harvests achieved through stock rebuilding. Such systems also promote efficiency by allowing quota holders flexibility in the timing and manner of harvesting their share to reduce costs or increase product value. Studies have also found that ITQs stimulate technological progress by increasing the returns to license holders from investments in research or improved fishing technology.
Partly because controversies have blocked adoption of rights-based systems in the United States and partly because there has never been an evaluation of actual experience in all ITQ systems worldwide using up-to-date data and an adequate, comparable assessment methodology, debate continues in a speculative but heated fashion about the possible positive and negative effects of adopting ITQ systems. This lack of definitive information makes it imperative to study carefully all available experience that sheds light on the likely consequences of adopting rights-based fishing regimes.
Fortunately, a rare naturally occurring experiment in the U.S. and Canadian Atlantic sea scallop fisheries provides such an opportunity. Fifteen years ago, Canada adopted a rights-based system in its offshore sea scallop fishery, whereas the United States continued to manage its scallop fishery with a mix of minimum harvest-size and maximum effort controls. A side-by-side comparison of the evolution of the commercial scallop fishery and of the scallop resource in the United States and Canada illuminates the consequences of these two very different approaches to fisheries management.
The Atlantic sea scallop fishery is especially suitable to such a comparison. The fishery has consistently been among the top 10 in the United States in the value of landings. After dispersing widely on ocean currents for about a month in the larval stage, juvenile scallops settle to the bottom. If they strike favorable bottom conditions, they remain relatively sedentary thereafter while growing rapidly. After they are first recruited into the fishery at about age three, scallops quadruple in size by age five, so harvesting scallops at the optimal age brings large rewards. Spawning potential also increases substantially over these years: Scallops four years old or older contribute approximately 85 percent to each year’s enormous fecundity, which can allow stocks to rebound fairly quickly when fishing pressure is reduced. A high percentage of the scallop harvest in both countries is caught in dredges towed along the bottom. The recreational fishery is negligible. Both Canada and the United States draw most of their harvest from George’s Bank, across which the International Court of Justice drew a boundary line in 1984, the Hague Line, separating the exclusive fishing grounds of the two countries.
The U.S. and Canadian scallop fisheries were compared by the collection of biological and economic data pertaining to each one for periods before and after the Canadians adopted rights-based fishing in 1986. The data underlying the figures and tables here are derived from data supplied by the NMFS, the New England Fisheries Science Center, the New England Fisheries Management Council, and the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans. This quantitative information was enriched by interviews carried out in Nova Scotia and in New England during the summer of 2000 with fishing captains, boat owners, fisheries scientists and managers, and consultants and activists involved with the scallop fisheries in the two countries.
The road not taken
The U.S. Atlantic sea scallop fishery extends from the Gulf of Maine to the mid-Atlantic, and the NMFS manages all but the Gulf of Maine stocks as a single unit. From 1982 through 1993, about the only management tool in place was an average “meat count” restriction, which prescribed the maximum number of scallop “meats” in a pound of harvested and shucked scallops. Entry into the scallop fishery remained open.
This approach was inadequate to prevent either recruitment or growth overfishing. (Growth overfishing means harvesting the scallops too young and too small, sacrificing high rates of potential growth. Recruitment overfishing means harvesting them to such an extent that stocks are reduced well below maximum economic or biological yield because the reproductive potential is impaired.) Limited entry was introduced through a moratorium on the issuance of new licenses in March 1994, but more than 350 license holders remained. This many licenses were estimated at the time to exceed the capacity consistent with stock rebuilding by about 33 percent.
Because of excessive capacity, additional measures to control fishing effort were also adopted. The allowable days at sea were scheduled to drop from 200 in the initial year to 120 in 2000, which is barely enough to allow a full-time vessel to recover its fixed costs under normal operating conditions. A maximum crew size of seven was adopted–an important limitation, because shucking scallops at sea is very labor intensive. Minimum diameters were prescribed for the rings on scallop dredges to allow small scallops to escape, and minimum-size restrictions were retained. These rules constructed a system of stringent effort controls.
In December 1994, another significant event for scallop fishermen occurred: Three areas of George’s Bank were closed to all fishing vessels capable of catching cod or other groundfish, a measure necessitated by the collapse of the groundfish stocks. Scallop dredges were included in this ban, cutting the fishery off from an estimated five million pounds of annual harvest and shifting fishing effort dramatically to the mid-Atlantic region and other open areas. (Two small areas in the mid-Atlantic region were subsequently closed to protect juvenile scallops.)
The U.S. scallop fishery was also strongly affected by provisions in the Sustainable Fisheries Act of 1996, which required fisheries management to develop plans to eliminate overfishing and restore stocks to a level that would produce the maximum sustainable yield. Because current scallop stocks were estimated to be only one-third to one-fourth that size, these provisions mandated a drastic reduction in fishing effort. The plan adopted in 1998 provided that allowable days at sea would fall from 120 to as few as 51 over three years, a level that would be economically disastrous for the fishery.
In response, the Fisheries Survival Fund (FSF), an industry group, formed to lobby for access to scallops in the closed areas, a relief measure that was opposed by some groundfish interests, lobstermen, and environmentalists. Industry-funded sample surveys found that stocks in the closed areas had increased 8- to 16-fold after four years of respite. On this evidence, direct lobbying of the federal government secured permission for limited harvesting of scallops in one of the closed areas of George’s Bank in 1999. Abundant yields of large scallops were found. In the following year, limited harvesting in all three closed areas of George’s Bank was permitted. This rebuilding of the stock, together with strong recruitment years, revived the fortunes of the industry and made it unnecessary to reduce allowed days at sea to fewer than 120 days per year. Today, all the effort controls on U.S. scallop fishermen remain, plus additional limitations on the number of days that they can fish in the closed areas as well as catch limits on each allowable trip.
Canada, which harvests a much smaller scallop area, introduced limited entry as far back as 1973, confirming 77 licenses. The only additional management tool was an average size restriction. During the next decade of competitive fishing with the U.S. fleet, stocks were depleted, incomes were reduced, and many Canadian owner-operators voluntarily joined together in fishing corporations. This resulted in considerable consolidation, so that by 1984 there were only a dozen companies fishing for scallops, most of them operating several boats and holding multiple licenses.
In 1984, after the adjudication of the Hague Line, the Canadian offshore scallop fishery began to develop an enterprise allocation (EA) system. In an EA system, portions of the TAC are awarded not to individual vessels but to operating companies, which can then harvest their quota largely as they think best. The government supported this effort, accepting responsibility for setting the TAC with industry advice but insisting that the license holders work out for themselves the initial quota allocation. After almost a year of hard bargaining, allocations were awarded to nine enterprises. Also in 1986, to support this system, the government separated the inshore and offshore scallop fisheries, demarcating fishing boundaries between the two fleets.
The two nations adopted different management regimes for their similar scallop fisheries for several reasons. The Canadian fishery was much smaller and had already undergone considerable consolidation by the mid-1980s. There were fewer than 12 companies involved in the negotiations over the initial quota allocation. All of these enterprises were located in Nova Scotia, where the fishing community is relatively small and close-knit. By contrast, the U.S. fishery comprised more than 350 licensees and 200 active vessels operating from ports spread from Virginia to Maine. In fact, although it had been suggested as an appropriate option in the 1992 National ITQ Study, the ITQ option was rejected early in the development of Amendment 4 to the scallop management plan on the grounds that negotiating initial allocations would take too long. There were also fears that an ITQ system would lead to excessive concentration within the fishery. Atlantic Canada had already started moving in the direction of rights-based fishing in 1982, with an enterprise allocation system for groundfish. This approach was strongly opposed in all New England fisheries, where the tradition of open public access to fishing grounds is extremely strong. In New England, effort and size limitations were preferable to restrictions on who could fish.
Interviews in Canada reveal that a strong consensus has emerged among quota holders, the workers’ union, and fisheries managers in favor of a conservative overall catch limit. In recent years, the annual TAC has been set in accordance with scientists’ recommendations in order to stabilize the harvest in the face of fluctuating recruitment. This understanding has been fostered by the industry-financed government research program, which closely samples the abundance of scallops in various year classes to present the industry with an array of estimates relating this year’s TAC to the consequent change in harvestable biomass. Faced with these choices, the Canadian industry has opted for conservative overall quotas, realizing that each quota holder will proportionately capture the benefits of conservation through higher catch limits in subsequent years.
As a result, the Canadian fishery has succeeded in rebuilding the stock from the very low levels that were reached during the period of competitive fishing in the early 1980s. It has also succeeded in smoothing out fluctuations in the biomass of larger scallops in the face of large annual variations in the stock of new three-year-old recruits.
In the United States, effort reductions needed to rebuild stocks have usually been opposed unless seen to be absolutely necessary. The effort controls adopted in 1994 were driven by the need to reduce fishing mortality by at least one-half to forestall drastic stock declines. Those embodied in Amendment 7 to the Fisheries Management Plan in 1998 responded to a requirement in the Sustainable Fisheries Act of 1996 to eliminate overfishing and to rebuild stocks to the level that would support the maximum sustainable yield by cutting effort by 50 to 75 percent. As a result of such resistance, resource abundance in the U.S. fishery has fluctuated more widely in response to varying recruitment, and a larger fraction of the overall resource consists of new three-year-old recruits because of heavy fishing exploitation of larger, older scallops.
Because of its success in maintaining greater scallop stocks, the Canadian fishery has maintained harvest levels with less fishing pressure. The exploitation rate for scallops aged 4 to 7 years, the age class targeted in the Canadian fishery, has fallen from about 40 percent at the time the EA system was adopted to 20 percent or less in recent years. The exploitation rate for 3-year-old scallops has fallen almost to zero. Industry participants state unanimously that it makes no economic sense to harvest juvenile scallops, because the rates of return on a one- or two-year conservation investment are so high. Not only do scallops double and redouble in size over that span, but the price per pound also rises for larger scallops. Therefore, the industry has supplemented the official average meat count restriction with a voluntary program limiting the number of very small scallops (meat count 50 or above) that can be included in the average. Although industry monitors check compliance, there is no incentive for license holders to violate it because they alone reap the returns from this conservation investment.
In the United States, the exploitation rates have been much higher. Exploitation rates for larger scallops rose throughout the period from 1985 to 1994, peaking above 80 percent in 1993. Only the respite of the closed areas gave the stock some opportunity to rebuild in subsequent years. Exploitation pressures have also been heavy on 3-year-old scallops despite the heavy economic losses this imposes. Exploitation rates have consistently exceeded 20 percent and rose beyond 50 percent when effort expanded substantially during the early 1990s in response to one or two strong year classes. Because there is no assurance in the competitive U.S. fishery that fishermen acting to conserve small scallops will be able to reap the subsequent rewards themselves, the fleet has not exempted these undersized scallops from the harvest.
Although there is no reliable data on fishermen’s incomes, there are still reasonably reliable indicators of their economic success. The first is capacity utilization. An equipped fishing vessel represents a large investment that is uneconomic when idle. Considerable excess capacity was already present in the U.S. fleet when license limitations were initiated in 1994, allowing the number of active vessels to expand and contract in response to stock fluctuations.
In Canada, there has been a steady and gradual reduction in the size of the fleet. When the EA system was introduced, license holders began replacing their old wooden boats with fewer, larger, more powerful vessels. The stability afforded by the EA system reduced license holders’ investment risk and enabled them to finance these investments readily. Overall, the number of active vessels in the Canadian fishery has already dropped from 67 to 28. The process continues. Two Canadian companies are investing in larger replacement vessels with onboard freezing plants in order to make longer trips and freeze the first-caught scallops immediately, thereby enhancing product quality.
Trends in the number of days spent annually at sea are similar to those in the number of active vessels. In the United States, effort has risen and fallen in response to recruitment and stock fluctuations. In Canada, there has been a steady reduction in the number of days spent at sea, reflecting the greater catching power of newer vessels, the greater abundance of scallops, and the increase in catch per tow. Consequently, the number of sea days per active vessel, a measure of capacity utilization, has consistently been higher by a considerable margin in Canada than in the United States. Because of the flexibility afforded to license holders and their ability to plan rationally for changes in capacity, the Canadian fishery has been able to use its fixed capital more effectively. In the United States, restrictions on allowable days at sea, now at 120 days per year, have impinged heavily on those operators who would have fished their vessels more intensively.
A second important indicator of profitability is the catch per day at sea. Operating costs for fuel, ice, food, and crew rise linearly with the number of days spent at sea. Therefore, the best indicator of a vessel’s operating margin is its catch per sea day. In Canada, catch per day at sea has risen almost fourfold since the EA system was adopted. Because overall scallop abundance is greater and the cooperative survey program has produced a more detailed knowledge of good scallop concentrations, little effort is wasted in harvesting the TAC. Moreover, fishing has targeted larger scallops, producing a larger and more valuable yield per tow. In the U.S. fishery, catch per sea day fell significantly over the same period because of excessive effort, lower abundance, greater reliance on immature scallops, and less detailed knowledge of resource conditions. As a result of these diverging trends, catch per sea day in 1998 favored the Canadian fleet by at least a sevenfold margin, although when the regimes diverged in 1986 the difference was only about 70 percent. The harvesting of large scallops in the U.S. closed area in 1999 helped only somewhat to reduce this difference. An index of revenue per sea day normalized to 1985 shows the same trend. It is clear that the Canadian fleet has prospered and that until the recent opening of the closed areas, the U.S. fleet has not.
Striking as these comparisons may be, the differences in technological innovation in the two fisheries are perhaps even more dramatic. The Canadian industry has clearly recognized the value of investments in research. License holders jointly and voluntarily finance the government’s research program by providing a fully equipped research vessel and crew to take sample surveys, enabling research scientists to take samples on a much finer sampling grid and resulting in a more detailed mapping of scallop concentrations by size and age. In addition, scallop vessels contribute data from their vessel logs, recording catch per tow and Global Positioning System information, to the research scientists, facilitating even better knowledge of scallop locations and abundance.
In the United States, the government-funded research program lacks the resources to sample the much larger U.S. scallop area in the same detail. However, the industry response has not been to finance government research, as in Canada, but to initiate a parallel sampling program, especially to monitor scallop abundance in the closed areas.
Recently, the Canadian industry has embarked on a new industry-financed program costing several million dollars to map the bottom of its scallop grounds using multibeam sonar. This technique can distinguish among bottom conditions, thereby pinpointing the gravelly patches where scallops are likely to be found. Confirmation of these maps with experimental tows has confirmed that this mapping can enable vessels to harvest scallops with much less wasted effort. Industry informants predict that they will be able to harvest their quotas with an additional 50 percent reduction in effort. Not only will this reduction in dredging increase the fishery’s net rent considerably, it will also reduce bycatch of groundfish, gear conflicts with other fisheries, and damage to benthic organisms on George’s Bank. All three side effects are of great ecological benefit to other fisheries.
Equity and governance issues
Both the U.S. and Canadian fisheries have traditionally operated on the “lay” system, which divides the revenue from each trip among crew, captain, and owner according to pre-set percentages, after subtracting certain operating expenses. In Canada, for example, 60 percent of net revenues are divided between captain and crew and 40 percent goes to the boat. For this reason, all parties remaining in the fishery after its consolidation have shared in its increasing rents. The government raised license fees in January 1996 from a nominal sum to $547.50 per ton of quota, thereby recapturing some resource rents for the public sector as well.
Although survivors in the Canadian fishery have done well, there has been a loss of employment amounting to about 70 jobs per year over the past 13 years. In the early years, many found berths in the inshore scallop fishery, which was enjoying an unusual recruitment bloom. More recently, the expanding oil and gas industry in Nova Scotia and the service sector have absorbed these workers with little change in overall unemployment. The Canadian union representing many of the scallop workers supports the EA system over a return to competitive fishing, favoring steady remunerative jobs over a larger part-time or insecure workforce. The union has negotiated full staffing of crews, which contain 17 workers in Canada (as compared with 7 in the United States) and preference for displaced crew in filling onshore or replacement crew jobs.
One fear expressed by U.S. fisherman about the consequences of adopting a rights-based regime is that small fishermen will be forced out by larger concerns. Although exit from a rights-based fishery would be voluntary, the fear is that small fishermen would not be able to compete, perhaps because of economies of scale or financial constraints, and would have to sell out. Canada’s experience provides some evidence about the process of consolidation. Over a 14-year period, the number of quota holders has declined from nine to seven. Three medium-to-large quota holders sold out to Clearwater Fine Foods Ltd., which is now the largest licensee, holding slightly less than a third of the total quota. The other entrant, LaHave Seafoods, is the smallest licensee, having bought a part of the quota held by an exiting company. The remaining 65 percent of the quota remains in the original hands, including the shares held by two of the smallest original quota holders. There is little evidence in this record that the smaller players have been at a significant competitive disadvantage or that a rights-based regime results in monopolization of the fishery.
Another important issue is a regime’s effect on the process of governance and the success of co-management efforts. On this score, the Canadian record is clearly superior. The industry cooperatively supports government and its own research programs. Owners and operators speak respectfully about the scientists’ competence and have almost always accepted their recommendations in recent years. The industry also bears the costs of monitoring and enforcement of the EA regime and of its own voluntary restrictions on harvesting underaged scallops. Interviews reveal that fishermen feel that the system has freed them from disputes regarding allocations or effort restrictions and has enabled them to concentrate on maximizing the value of their quotas through efficiencies and enhanced product quality.
The contrast with the U.S. fishery is obvious. The industry created its own lobbying organization, the FSF, to contest the decisions of the New England Fisheries Management Council and the NMFS in maintaining area closures. The FSF has hired its own Washington lawyer and a lobbyist (a former congressman) to lobby Congress and the executive branch directly. It has also hired its own scientific consultants in order to contest the findings of government scientists, if necessary, and is conducting its own abundance sampling. Fishermen in the industry and their representatives are openly critical of government fisheries managers and scientists and of one another. All informants complain about the time-consuming debates and discussions about management changes. The larger fishermen complained repeatedly that smaller fishermen were motivated mainly by envy and were using the political process to try to hold others back. Adding further to the conflict, environmental groups that had won a place on the fisheries management council, having failed to stop the council’s decision to resume limited scallop fishing in the closed areas of George’s Bank, have initiated a lawsuit to block the opening. The co-management regime in the U.S. scallop fishery is conflicted, costly, and ineffective.
Charting the future
In Canada, neither industry nor government nor unions desire to replace the EA system with any other. The industry expects that its investment in research will substantially raise efficiency and profitability in the coming years, even with a stable TAC. The industry’s investment in new freezer vessels will also enhance product quality and the value of the catch by enabling the operators to freeze first-caught scallops and market fresh the scallops caught on the last days of the voyage.
The prognosis for the U.S. fishery is less certain but more interesting. The natural experiments with closed areas have demonstrated how quickly scallop stocks can increase when fishing pressure is relaxed. They have also raised suspicions that the larger biomass of mature scallops in the closed areas may be responsible for the good recruitment classes of recent years. This would suggest that the fishery had been subject to recruitment overfishing as well as growth overfishing. Developments in the closed areas have created substantial support both in the FSF and in the NMFS for adopting a system of rotational harvesting, in which roughly 20 percent of the scallop grounds would be opened in rotation in each year. Rotational harvesting would largely eliminate growth overfishing by giving undersized scallops in closed areas a chance to mature. This would improve yields in the fishery but would not resolve the problem of excessive effort. Rotational harvesting would also raise new management challenges regarding enforcing the closures and adjusting them with insufficient data on fluctuating geographical scallop concentrations.
Adopting a rotational harvesting regime would also lead toward a catch quota system. Already, limits on the number of trips each vessel may take into the closed areas and catch limits per trip amount to implicit vessel quotas for harvests in the closed areas. These would be formalized in a rotational harvesting plan. Then, perhaps, it might be only a matter of time before the advantages of flexible harvesting of quotas and transfers of quotas are realized. It seems quite possible that over the coming years, the U.S. scallop fishery will move toward and finally adopt a rights-based regime, putting itself in a position to realize some of the economic benefits that the Canadian industry has enjoyed for the past decade.
There has been little discussion in the United States of the Canadian experience, relevant though it is, or of the experience of other countries in using rights-based approaches to fisheries management. There is a pressing need for a thorough evaluation of the results of these approaches throughout the world, using adequate assessment methodologies and up-to-date data, in order to give U.S. fishermen and policymakers a more adequate basis for choice.
If the U.S. scallop fishery were a business, its management would surely be fired, because its revenues could readily be increased by at least 50 percent while its costs were being reduced by an equal percentage. No private sector manager could survive with this degree of inefficiency.
Experience has shown that moving from malfunctioning effort controls to a rights-based approach typically results in improved sustainability and prosperity for the fishery. Safeguards can be built into rights-based systems. For example, limits on quota accumulation can forestall excessive concentration. Vigorous monitoring and enforcement combined with severe penalties can deter cheating. Size limitations can be used if necessary to prevent excessive high grading. The concerns raised regarding the possible disadvantages of rights-based systems can be addressed in these ways rather than by an outright ban on the entire approach. Rather than requiring fisheries to adhere to management systems that have not worked well in the past, Congress should encourage fisheries that wish to do so to experiment with other promising approaches. Only the fruits of experience will resolve the uncertainties and allay the misgivings that now block progress.