09/13/2019

Winners and Losers

Commercial fishermen talk a lot. There may be exceptions, but on the whole, they’re downright gabby.  And, their favorite thing to talk about is how there are too many stupid, unfair, and downright ineffective fishing regulations.

In the category of unfair, there is a tragic history in the allocation of groundfish (e.g., cod, haddock, flounders, redfish, pollock, hake, etc.) here in New England. Back in 2010, the federal government switched from regulating fishermen by the number of days they could fish to regulating the number of pounds they could take out of the water. They determined the new allocation based on previous catch history over a range of years. If a fisherman had fished, he got quota. If he hadn’t, he didn’t.

Meanwhile, some fishermen had been buying permits from other boats…permits that might not have been fished but held a large allocation of days. They were investing in these permits so their boats could fish more days of the year. Once the switch happened, though, it was like they were holding Confederate currency after the Civil War…worthless currency that they had paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for.

This management decision came after years of hand-wringing and analysis by decision-makers. And, as with every rule on the books, there’s a lot of rationale behind it. While commercial fishermen are among the most conservation-minded ocean stewards you’ll ever meet, as a collective they would wipe out the ocean in a heartbeat. It’s the quintessential tragedy of the commons. In the absence of regulation, fishermen know that if they don’t fish on a stock, even if it’s spawning or diminished, someone else will. So, they behave against their own intuition.

To avoid this tragedy, regulators put controls in place. They limit the number of harvesters in a fishery through permits, licenses, and other qualifiers, such as catch history, and they determine limits for harvests to avoid reducing fish stocks. And, that’s what happened here.

We get it. And, we’re grateful. Without regulations, we wouldn’t have reliable, sustainable fisheries. Still, it’s critical to remember that there are often winners and losers in these decisions, even as the rules are intended for the good of the whole.

Keep talking, fishermen. We’re listening. And, we’re here to do whatever we can to make everyone winners.