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Thursday, 27 February 2014

From across the pond: So how’s that “catch shares” revolution working out for groundfish?

So how’s that “catch shares” revolution working out for groundfish? “Recent scientific analyses show us that fisheries managed with catch share programs perform better than fisheries managed with traditional tools. Even in the first years after implementation, catch share fisheries are stable, and even increase their productivity. The scientific evidence is compelling that catch shares can also help restore the health of ecosystems and get fisheries on a path to profitability and sustainability. These results, … these scientific analyses, … are why moving forward to implement more catch share programs is a high priority for me. I see catch shares as the best way for many fisheries to both meet the Magnuson mandates and have healthy, profitable fisheries that are sustainable.” (Former NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco to the New England Fishery Management Council pressing for catch share management in the New England groundfish fishery in Boston on May 19, 2009)

Several weeks back NOAA/NMFS released the 2012 Final Report on the Performance of the Northeast Multispecies (Groundfish) Fishery (May 2012 – April 2013). The 121 page report is rather formidable, but fortunately for those of us who aren’t interested in the minutia of sociology, anthropology and economics as applied to the situation that our nations’ oldest and at one time most important commercial fishery has been forced into, its first table (Summary of major trends (May through April, includes all vessels with a valid limited access multispecies permit) says about all that needs to be said concerning the efficacy of federal fisheries management under what the Magnuson Act has been turned into by the mega-foundation supported ENGOs. It’s also a fairly good indicator of Ms. Lubchenco’s prowess as an analyst/prophetess/seer.

I’ve attached Table 1 from the Report. For purposes of this exercise the most important figures included in the table are those reporting the groundfish revenue for groundfish vessels from 2009 – the year that catch shares were first inflicted on the fishery - to 2012. They were $82 million, $83 million, $90 million and $70 million respectively. In spite of Ms. Lubchenco’s assurances that “even in the first years after implementation catch share fisheries are stable, and even increase their productivity,” in the third year of the New England groundfish catch shares program – called a “Sector Program” here – the stability that she had assured everyone was just around the catch shares corner was as dead as a dodo because of a pronounced decrease in productivity. (Note here that the most obvious measure of productivity, the weight of groundfish landings, was not included in the chart. Considering the fact that the average price of New England groundfish in particular and, as evidenced by the non-groundfish prices reported in Table 1, domestic finfish in general have increased significantly in the last four years, the decrease in productivity is even greater than it appears.)

Delving more deeply into the report we find: · Executive Summary - "Fishermen in the groundfish fleet were unable to offset the declines in groundfish revenues with increases in non-groundfish revenues. In 2012, total landings of all species on all trips taken by the groundfish fleet declined by 5.4% and total all species revenue fell by 7.7% ($25.3 million) from 2011. Groundfish landings declined 24.9% from 2011, to a four year low of 46.3 million pounds. Although groundfish average price rose by 2.7% from 2011 to 2012, it did not compensate for the drop in groundfish landings, and groundfish nominal revenues fell 22.9% in 2012 to a four year low of $69.8 million. At the same time, non-groundfish landings remained nearly constant, with a 0.4% increase, and average nongroundfish price fell 2.6%, which led to a 1.9% decrease in non-groundfish revenues in 2012 from 2011.”

· 2.2. Gross Nominal Revenues – “Gross nominal revenues for the groundfish fleet further indicate that groundfish fishermen were unable to use non-groundfish revenues to offset their losses in groundfish revenues in 2012. Total gross revenue in 2012 from all trips was $305.5 million, a decrease from 2011 ($330.8 million), but higher than in 2009 ($262.9 million) and 2010 ($293.8 million) (Table 2)15. Groundfish revenue in 2012 decreased to a four-year low of $69.8 million (22.9% lower than in 2011). Non-groundfish revenue decreased to $235.7 million (2% lower than in 2011), but was still higher than in 2009 and 2010.

Total nominal revenue from all species on groundfish trips in 2012 was $95.4 million, a four-year low (Table 3). Groundfish revenue on groundfish trips in 2012 was $69.7 million, also a four-year low. Non-groundfish revenues on groundfish trips decreased in 2012 to $25.8 million, from $31.8 million in 2011. Non-groundfish revenue earned on groundfish trips washigher than it was in 2010 ($22.3 million), but essentially the same as it was 2009 ($25.9 million)”

· 2.2.2. Nominal Revenues by Species – “Revenues from cod, haddock, yellowtail flounder, witch flounder, and pollock all decreased in 2012. Cod and haddock revenues experienced very significant drops, falling to four-year lows (45% reduction for cod; 62% reduction for haddock from 2011) (Table 8). Given higher average prices in 2012 for cod and haddock, these reductions in revenue can be attributed to sharp declines in landings.”

Concluding Remarks – “Our analyses of fishery performance measures of the limited access Northeast Multispecies (Groundfish) Fishery showed marked changes in the fishery during 2011-2012, with many of the positive economic trends observed in last year’s groundfish performance report reversing their course in 2012. After increasing in 2011, landed pounds of groundfish are at their lowest point in 2009-2012 for all vessels. Non-groundfish landings are at a four year high, but grew less than 1% from their 2011 levels. Non-groundfish landings and revenues did not compensate for losses in groundfish landings and revenues.”

Considering the cumulative cuts that have been instituted in the groundfish fisheries it’s safe to assume that the reported 2011 – 2012 trends will extend into the current fishing year, and without major changes in the Magnuson Act and in how NOAA/NMFS and the New England Council are allowed to manage the fisheries they will be extended beyond that.

So what, if anything, can be done?

First off, it’s important to be clear on one point. That is, this debacle can’t be blamed entirely on catch shares in general or the New England groundfish sector system in particular. In spite of Ms. Lubchenco’s inaccurate pronouncements, catch shares are not a guaranteed fix for any ailing fishery. From the perspective of the fish a catch share system is nothing more than a quota system (though from the fishing industry perspective it can be significantly different, depending on who – or what – ends up owning or controlling the quota), and quota systems are only as good as the quota setting and quota enforcing mechanisms behind them.

Unfortunately the quota setting mechanism in the New England groundfish fishery has been grossly ineffective – and this is in large part a function of the science that has supported it (let me stress here that I’m blaming the science, not the scientists, whose science might be skewed by bureaucratic, institutional and budgetary considerations). According to the science, in recent years the groundfish come and the groundfish go – though currently they appear now to be mostly going – with little connection to harvest levels.

Needless to say, when you have a fisheries management system which is predicated almost entirely on controlling fishing mortality, which out fisheries management system is, and there are other factors that impact fish stocks as much as or more than fishing mortality, your management system is going to break down, as it has in New England.

An obvious fix of this dismal situation would involve identifying and measuring these other factors and then adjusting our management systems to allow for them.

Can we do that? Not now, with the Magnuson Act forcing the managers and the fishermen into a straitjacket woven from the inflexible and glaringly ineffective “we have to control fishing because it’s the only thing we can control” fisheries management system.

And why are we stuck with this system? Because a handful of multi-billion dollar foundations, the ENGOs they control and the “fishing” organizations they have co-opted want us to be.

Is there a solution? You betcha!

The National Research Council of the National Academies of Science formed the Committee on Evaluating the Effectiveness of Stock Rebuilding Plans of the 2006 Fishery Conservation and Management Reauthorization Act which prepared a report titled Evaluating the Effectiveness of Fish Stock Rebuilding Plans in the United States. 

On page 178 of the available (prepublication) report the Committee concluded 

“the tradeoff between flexibility and prescriptiveness within the current legal framework and MFSCMA (Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act) guidelines for rebuilding underlies many of the issues discussed in this chapter. The present approach may not be flexible or adaptive enough in the face of complex ecosystem and fishery dynamics when data and knowledge are limiting. The high degree of prescriptiveness (and concomitant low flexibility) may create incompatibilities between single species rebuilding plans and EBFM (Ecosystem Based Fisheries Management). Fixed rules for rebuilding times can result in inefficiencies and discontinuities of harvest-control rules, put unrealistic demands on models and data for stock assessment and forecasting, cause reduction in yield, especially in mixed-stock situations, and de-emphasize socio-economic factors in the formulation of rebuilding plans. The current approach specifies success of individual rebuilding plans in biological terms. It does not address evaluation of the success in socio-economic terms and at broader regional and national scales, and also does not ensure effective flow of information (communication) across regions.

In fact, Congressman “Doc” Hastings, Chairman of the Committee on Natural Resources in the U.S. House of Representatives has been circulating a draft of amendments to the Magnuson Act that are largely focused on replacing the management flexibility that was intended by the Act’s authors back in 1976 but was subsequently nullified by the prodigious and expensive efforts of the handful of ENGOs whose budgets are and have been in large part dependent on demonizing fishermen and fishing. His legislation is titled the "Strengthening Fishing Communities and Increasing Flexibility in Fisheries Management Act" (available at

In spite of what the National Research Council has to say, the ENGOs, their supporters and allies are pulling out all the stops to oppose Congressman Hastings’ attempts to put some rationality back into fisheries management by substituting educated judgment for inadequate science when it is warranted. Some of their spokespeople are referring to it as Rep. Hastings’ Empty Oceans Act, though their frantic reactions make it seem as if in camera they might be looking at it as Chairman Hastings’ Empty the ENGO Coffers Act. Their misleading argument is that Magnuson is working now (just ask anyone who is in whole or in part dependent on the New England groundfish fishery about that) and that changing it would transport us back to the bad old days of overfishing. That’s not going to happen. The fishermen wouldn’t accept it and there are still enough safeguards so that the managers couldn’t allow it even if they were so inclined. But, like the misuse of the term “overfished” presently in the Act, that’s where these ENGOs get much of their fishing derived thunder, so right or wrong (and the NAS/NRC, which is among the most unimpeachable and credible scientific bodies in the world, unambiguously says they are wrong) they’re going to do their utmost to scuttle Congressman Hastings’ amendments.

“Through the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, the United States has one of the world's strongest statutory frameworks for the management of sustainable fisheries. The Act is highly effective at preventing overfishing and rebuilding overfished stocks. However, in the years since the requirements of the last reauthorization have been implemented, it has become increasingly clear that the councils need more flexibility to make decisions that are tailored to the needs and circumstances of each fishery.” (Statement of Richard B. Robins Jr., Chairman of the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council at a hearing on the Strengthening Fishing Communities and Increasing Flexibility in Fisheries Management Act held by the House Resources Committee on 02/04/2014. None of the fisheries managed by the Mid-Atlantic Council are overfished.)

This was originally posted on the Fishosophy blog, which is jointly hosted on the American Fisheries Society ( and the American Institute of Fishery Research Biologists ( websites. The contents of the blog do not necessarily represent the views of the other Fishosophy bloggers, either organization or their leadership.