A new study proves what we knew from years of fishing Alaskan seas: monetary incentives to conserve can prevent overfishing

by Craig Weatherby and Randy Hartnell

A team of marine biologists and economists from the University of California and the University of Hawaii have concluded that a fisheries-management strategy used in Alaska can reverse fisheries collapse.

The fisheries management strategy in questioncalled “catch shares”has been used in Alaska for decades, and has protected fish stocks very effectively.

The California-Hawaii team published a study titled “Can Catch Shares Prevent Fisheries Collapse?” in the leading scientific journal Science (It was funded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen).

The authors found that wherever traditional “open access” fisheries have converted to catch shares, both fishermen and the oceans have benefited.

Catch shares guarantee each shareholder a fixed portion of a fishery's total allowable catch, which is set each year by scientists based on the fishery's stock assessment.

Much like shares in a company, catch shares can be bought and sold. Each share becomes more valuable when the fish populationand thus the total allowable catchincreases.

This linkage between supply and share value discourages over-fishing by making conservation pay in a very tangible way.

Proof lies in the history of Alaskan Halibut… and other fisheries

Dr. Gaines and his colleagues found that while nearly a third of open-access fisheries have collapsed, the number is only half that for fisheries managed under catch share systems (Costello C et al. 2008).

And, they found that catch shares reverse the overall downward trajectory for fisheries worldwide, and that this beneficial effect strengthens over time.

This paper provides the first global evidence that catch shares lead to better biological outcomes than seen in fisheries not using this strategy, and contributes an important scientific basis to the discussions.

While the current study focuses on a type of catch share called Individual Transferable Quotas (ITQs), the authors noted that to maximize benefits, catch shares must be tailored to the ecological, economic, and social characteristics of each fishery.

If designed properly, catch share programs can reduce bycatchthe unintentional harvest of threatened and/or non-targeted speciesand protect the ecosystem in the process.

Alaskan halibut showed the way

A prime example of catch share success is the Alaskan halibut fishery.

In 1995, when the fishery converted to ITQs, the total fishing season had dwindled from about four months down to just two or three days. Fishing boats would make dangerous sprints, often in horrendous weather, and their holds would be crammed full of frozen fish.

Today, the season lasts nearly eight months and much of the weather and fatigue related danger has been eliminated. Because boats now haul in fresh, undamaged fish in manageable quantities, the per-pound price has increased significantly.  According to study co-author Steven D. Gaines, director of the Marine Science Institute at the University of California at Santa Barbara, “Halibut fishermen were barely squeaking bybut now the fishery is insanely profitable” (COMPASS 2008).

(Note: While the Alaskan halibut fishery is very healthy, the increased profitability fishermen now enjoy is typically not shared by retailers, who must pay top dollar for the precious catch and then price it to sell in a very competitive market. At the moment, we have bulk amounts of smaller Alaskan halibut pieces, available at about half the per-pound cost of our regular 6-oz fillet portions.)

Catch shares are not a one-size-fits-all solution. However the current study demonstrates that ownership can be a powerful ally in the effort to reverse fisheries decline, especially when deployed with complementary management strategies.

As Dr. Gaines explained, “One of the big challenges in catch shares is how you allocate the shares. But this is not a scientific question; it's a value judgment on the part of local communities and their governments.”

You can say that again!

For example, the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) just approved Mediterranean Bluefin tuna quotas for 2010.

While the quota is 30 percent lower than today's number, experts say it is still far too high to prevent a collapse of the rapidly declining fishery.

Although Spainwhose fleet catches the most Bluefin tunaand Italy supported a compete suspension of tuna fishing, European politicians influenced by fishing interests pressured poor countries in the ICCAT to support dangerously high quotas and oppose other measures, such as a catch shares system.

The net effect of caving in to short term economic gain will be faster self-destruction of the fragile Mediterranean tuna industry.


  • Communication Partnership for Science and the Sea (COMPASS). New Study Offers Solution to Global Fisheries Collapse. September 18, 2008. Accessed online October 5, 2008 at http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2008-09/s-nso091208.php
  • Costello C, Gaines SD, Lynham J. Can Catch Shares Prevent Fisheries Collapse? Science, 19 September 2008:Vol. 321. no. 5896, pp. 1678 – 1681 DOI: 10.1126/science.1159478.
  • Phillips L. Tuna campaigners blame EU for unsustainable quota. November 25, 2008. Accessed online November 26, 2008 at http://euobserver.com/9/27173