Catch-share proposals in national fisheries

October 28, 2009

The Honorable Senator Maria Cantwell
915 Second Avenue
Suite 3206
Seattle, WA 98174

Re: Protecting small-scale family fishermen and our oceans

Dear Senator Cantwell,

Independent family fishermen have relied on generations of accumulated experience and local knowledge to bring fresh, high-quality, and locally-caught seafood to our dinner tables. Their work also supports many other community businesses, like marine supply stores, fuel suppliers, fish houses, local restaurants, and more. Unfortunately, following similar trends in agriculture and manufacturing, a handful of larger companies are being given the chance to dominate our coastal fisheries. This trend toward consolidation pushes out smaller fishermen and ultimately hurts our oceans as well as the coastal communities that depend on those oceans for their livelihoods.

In fisheries across the United States, plans have been proposed to dramatically change the way we manage our public fish resources. Under the guise of conservation, a proposed “catch share” harvest quota system would allocate and privatize individual shares of the annual allowed catch of each type of fish to fishermen. This allocation would be based primarily on how many fish they have caught in the past. While catch shares may sound promising on paper, in practice, these programs guarantee the future ability to fish to those who have fished the hardest and fastest. As a result, control of our fisheries is skewed toward those larger companies primarily interested in profit and less concerned about the long term health of fishery populations, fishing communities, and the fragile ocean ecosystem.

The most recent example of this alarming trend is the highly controversial proposed reallocation of Washington’s trawl catch by the Pacific Fishery Management Council (PFMC). These amendments to the Groundfish Management Plan, published in April 2009, euphemistically outline the “trawl rationalization” catch share program. In the Council’s proposal, the vast majority of groundfish quota will be going to a handful of larger trawl operations, with some 20% of the valuable whiting quota going directly to fish processors, not to actual rank-and-file commercial fishermen. Giving quota shares directly to a handful of fish processors is especially unwise, as it converts formerly independent local fishermen essentially into sharecroppers, prevents collective price bargaining by fishermen, eliminates all competition among processors and sanctions a glorified form of price-fixing, which will likely harm seafood consumers in the end.

In order to continue fishing under the proposed types of catch share system, historical family fisherman would likely have to lease or buy the ability to fish from larger corporations, often at cost-prohibitive prices. As a result, entry level fishermen cannot afford to enter the industry or keep fishing, and the businesses that depend on the local fishing economy are hurt as well since there is far less certainty (with highly portable privatized quotas) that a community’s own local fish will actually be caught, landed or processed locally. Even more troubling, unless carefully regulated, catch shares become highly susceptible to market manipulation and investor speculation, and can quickly end up in the hands of financial institutions instead of historic commercial fishing families.

Additionally, giving most of the catch to bigger fishing businesses can also mean increased use of less ecologically friendly gear. Gear that can catch the most fish the fastest, often also can harm or kill non-target marine wildlife and harm important ocean habitat. On the contrary, family fishermen often fish with a different ethic toward and respect for our delicate ocean ecosystem. Ultimately, fish are a public resource. Our tax dollars are used to oversee their management, and this money be spent in such a way as to protect the broader public interest, not the interests of a few large fishing operations. Our nation’s fishermen and oceans need management systems that incorporate sound science, respect for our ocean ecosystems, and fair community participation. Our organizations represent thousands of Washington State citizens who are concerned about small-scale fishermen being pushed out of business by large fishing companies that are also damaging the health of our ocean and its fish. We are commercial fishermen, fishing-related businesses, elected officials, marine conservation organizations, ocean stakeholders and users, ecotourism providers, beach goers, tourism organizations, and marine scientists united in our concern for community-based small-scale fishermen and our oceans.

Therefore, we, the undersigned, urge you, our National Senator and the chairwoman of the Senate subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries, and the Coast Guard, to call for a Congressional oversight hearing as soon as possible on catch share quota programs to help prevent further harm to fishermen, coastal communities, marine wildlife and our oceans.

Sincerely,

PCC Natural Markets
Fair Fish Campaign Seattle
Fair Fish Campaign Tacoma
Businesses Allied for Local Living Economies (BALLE) Seattle
Community Alliance for Global Justice
Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations (PCFFA)
Slow Food Seattle
Tahoma Audubon Society
Ballard Brothers Burgers and Seafood
Loki Fish Company
Katharine Appleyard, Sound Policy Institute, University of Puget Sound
Seattle Chef’s Collaborative
John Foss, Coastal Rovers
Tom Hanlon, LLM Marine Resource Law, University of Washington

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