NOAA's Catch Shares Fisheries Debacle

Barrack Obama came to office with an agenda to fundamentally change America.  An element of his agenda is a plan, known as catch shares, to restructure the nation's fishing industry.  The author of his plan is Dr. Jane Lubchenco, the environmentalist rock star and former vice chairperson of the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF).  When it comes to the oceans, the protection of fish, and the punishment of the evil fishermen, Dr. Lubchenco is as extreme as Obama's former green jobs czar, Van Jones.

Obama, with no managerial experience himself, didn't simply make Dr. Lubchenco one of his numerous czars -- he anointed her as the head of NOAA despite her own complementary lack of managerial experience.  Effectively, Obama has given the EDF control of the $4-billion, 13,000-person government agency that oversees the national fisheries

The EDF wrote the 184-page playbook titled "Catch Shares Design Manual" for the plan that Dr. Lubchenco passed on to President Obama.  From page 2 of the manual:

A catch share program allocates a secure privilege to harvest a specified amount of a fishery's total catch to an individual or group (groups can be community-based). Under a catch share program, managers establish a fishery-wide catch limit, assign portions of the catch, or shares, to participants, and hold participants directly accountable to stay within the catch limit.

There is some propaganda sleight-of-hand at work here.  Catch shares evangelists believe that catch shares is a panacea for over-fishing.  This is nonsense (euphemism alert).  Controlling over-fishing is a function of the catch limit.  The EDF cautions (page 5 of the manual) against setting the catch limit too high, as it will put the fish at risk. 

However, they say nothing about setting the catch limit too low and putting the fishermen at economic risk.

The EDF does make a reasonable case, albeit with some rationalization and spin, that an economically incentivized system such as catch shares may be the optimum fisheries management technique.  They correctly point out that unfettered fishing has led to significant reductions in stock levels.  They state that the first managed fisheries approaches resulted in what the EDF terms a competitive "rush to fish" environment.  An individual quota as featured in catch shares gives the individual fisherman more control and reduces the competitive aspects of fishing from a common resource.

Catch shares is a management technique, not a conservation technique.  Any management technique requires competent management.  Good managers know how to manage, and they know their people, products, and constituents.  Good managers are also scarce. 

Bad managers, on the other hand, are all too common.  Bureaucracies breed bad managers.  The hierarchical structure encourages sycophants, who tend to rise in the organization -- the Peter Principle in its most gruesome form.  NOAA is a dismal example of incompetent management.

The academics who invented catch shares proudly say that the concept gives fishermen the security of a guaranteed quota.  Of course, the guarantee exists at the pleasure of NOAA and psyches that suckle on security by seeking employment in academia or the bureaucracy, but certainly not in fishing.

Catch shares are transferable or tradable.  The fear amongst fishermen is that the transferable catch shares can be sold to anybody, including big corporations or other governments.  The effect will be the elimination of the small-business fisherman and the creation of blue-collar serfs in the crews of massive fishing factories.  Catch shares has other warts as well -- see for example the Ecotrust Canada piece, "A Cautionary Tale About ITQ Fisheries."

In my opinion, catch shares -- given decent management, restrictions on who can buy shares, and, most importantly, reasonable allocations -- is a viable management technique.  However, no management technique will work (be it catch shares, days-at-sea, or jigging with tinfoil) with an ideologue in charge, Peter Principle underlings, and malicious catch allocations.

When Dr. Lubchenco and her eco-zealots took over at NOAA, she issued two fiats: drastically reduce most catch limits, and simultaneously implement catch shares in New England.  Doing too much at once is the hallmark of rookie managers (read: Lubchenco and Obama).

Dr. Brain Rothschild, the highly respected fisheries scientist of UMass Dartmouth, in a radio interview on WBSM, said that allocations (catch limits) were slashed 30% to 50% from the previous year.  He further stated that in his opinion, allocations could be raised 30% without impacting the science.

The deep cuts in allocations alone would have brought fishing to a virtual halt, and the imposition of a technique that neither NOAA management nor the fishermen understood just aggravated the situation.  That the results were clearly predictable does not make them any less disastrous.  Seventy percent of the fleet has not left the docks since the hammer fell.  This is plainly an emergency.

The midterms evidently shook Obama and Dr. Lubchenco.  On 4 November, just two days after the elections, NOAA issued a press release, titled "NOAA Policy Encourages Catch Shares to End Overfishing and Rebuild Fisheries."  The release gives every impression that they plan to rush implementation before the 2012 elections. 

The press release describes catch shares thus: "[A] fishery management tool that has shown it can help rebuild fisheries and sustain fishermen, communities, vibrant working waterfronts and culturally important fishing traditions."

This description continues the disinformation that catch shares cures the ills of the fishing industry.  Nonsense.  It does not.  The press release ignores the most important elements: capable administration and limiting the allowable catch. 

Dr. Lubchenco did not introduce appalling mismanagement to NOAA, but she has made America acutely aware of it.  NOAA was ineffective on the Gulf oil spill, and NOAA fisheries has been an outright disgrace, given incompetent management (that word again), corrupt disposition of funds generated by fines and property seizures from fishermen, and vindictive enforcement of regulations.  Dr. Lubchenco has vigorously tried to downplay and cover up the scandalous law enforcement revelations. 

Enter Gary Locke, the Secretary of Commerce.  Locke is nominally Dr. Lubchenco's boss, but he is not sufficiently simpatico to blend with the Obama-Lubchenco axis.  Locke, obviously embarrassed by NOAA's performance, committed to several corrective actions aimed at the fisheries law enforcement scandal.  He appeared on Maine Public Broadcasting on 27 September, where he said:
They [the NOAA fisheries law enforcement problems]'ve been allowed to persist for too long of a time, some going back -- and some of the issues and the cases raised and the complaints -- going back as far as 2001, but all of these problems are going to end on my watch as secretary of Commerce.

Governor Patrick of Massachusetts has asked Locke to consider steps to alleviate the problems.  Mayors Land of New Bedford, MA and Kirk of Gloucester, MA have also solicited Locke's assistance.  He has agreed, with conditions.  The following set of short-term and longer-term actions are essential.

Short-term:

  • Declare an emergency in accordance with the Magnuson-Stevens Act (MSA) and increase the allocations (catch limits) to offset the emergency created by the impetuous and poorly understood imposition of catch shares.
  • Declare a moratorium on any extensions of catch shares pending resolution of the long-term actions.
Long-term:

These would significantly improve the industry's outlook without impacting the sustainability science, but I fear that Locke's watch will be terminated by Obama before much happens.

Mike Johnson is a concerned citizen, a small-government conservative, and a live-free-or-die resident of New Hampshire.  E-mail: mnosnhoj@comcast.net
Barrack Obama came to office with an agenda to fundamentally change America.  An element of his agenda is a plan, known as catch shares, to restructure the nation's fishing industry.  The author of his plan is Dr. Jane Lubchenco, the environmentalist rock star and former vice chairperson of the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF).  When it comes to the oceans, the protection of fish, and the punishment of the evil fishermen, Dr. Lubchenco is as extreme as Obama's former green jobs czar, Van Jones.

Obama, with no managerial experience himself, didn't simply make Dr. Lubchenco one of his numerous czars -- he anointed her as the head of NOAA despite her own complementary lack of managerial experience.  Effectively, Obama has given the EDF control of the $4-billion, 13,000-person government agency that oversees the national fisheries

The EDF wrote the 184-page playbook titled "Catch Shares Design Manual" for the plan that Dr. Lubchenco passed on to President Obama.  From page 2 of the manual:

A catch share program allocates a secure privilege to harvest a specified amount of a fishery's total catch to an individual or group (groups can be community-based). Under a catch share program, managers establish a fishery-wide catch limit, assign portions of the catch, or shares, to participants, and hold participants directly accountable to stay within the catch limit.

There is some propaganda sleight-of-hand at work here.  Catch shares evangelists believe that catch shares is a panacea for over-fishing.  This is nonsense (euphemism alert).  Controlling over-fishing is a function of the catch limit.  The EDF cautions (page 5 of the manual) against setting the catch limit too high, as it will put the fish at risk. 

However, they say nothing about setting the catch limit too low and putting the fishermen at economic risk.

The EDF does make a reasonable case, albeit with some rationalization and spin, that an economically incentivized system such as catch shares may be the optimum fisheries management technique.  They correctly point out that unfettered fishing has led to significant reductions in stock levels.  They state that the first managed fisheries approaches resulted in what the EDF terms a competitive "rush to fish" environment.  An individual quota as featured in catch shares gives the individual fisherman more control and reduces the competitive aspects of fishing from a common resource.

Catch shares is a management technique, not a conservation technique.  Any management technique requires competent management.  Good managers know how to manage, and they know their people, products, and constituents.  Good managers are also scarce. 

Bad managers, on the other hand, are all too common.  Bureaucracies breed bad managers.  The hierarchical structure encourages sycophants, who tend to rise in the organization -- the Peter Principle in its most gruesome form.  NOAA is a dismal example of incompetent management.

The academics who invented catch shares proudly say that the concept gives fishermen the security of a guaranteed quota.  Of course, the guarantee exists at the pleasure of NOAA and psyches that suckle on security by seeking employment in academia or the bureaucracy, but certainly not in fishing.

Catch shares are transferable or tradable.  The fear amongst fishermen is that the transferable catch shares can be sold to anybody, including big corporations or other governments.  The effect will be the elimination of the small-business fisherman and the creation of blue-collar serfs in the crews of massive fishing factories.  Catch shares has other warts as well -- see for example the Ecotrust Canada piece, "A Cautionary Tale About ITQ Fisheries."

In my opinion, catch shares -- given decent management, restrictions on who can buy shares, and, most importantly, reasonable allocations -- is a viable management technique.  However, no management technique will work (be it catch shares, days-at-sea, or jigging with tinfoil) with an ideologue in charge, Peter Principle underlings, and malicious catch allocations.

When Dr. Lubchenco and her eco-zealots took over at NOAA, she issued two fiats: drastically reduce most catch limits, and simultaneously implement catch shares in New England.  Doing too much at once is the hallmark of rookie managers (read: Lubchenco and Obama).

Dr. Brain Rothschild, the highly respected fisheries scientist of UMass Dartmouth, in a radio interview on WBSM, said that allocations (catch limits) were slashed 30% to 50% from the previous year.  He further stated that in his opinion, allocations could be raised 30% without impacting the science.

The deep cuts in allocations alone would have brought fishing to a virtual halt, and the imposition of a technique that neither NOAA management nor the fishermen understood just aggravated the situation.  That the results were clearly predictable does not make them any less disastrous.  Seventy percent of the fleet has not left the docks since the hammer fell.  This is plainly an emergency.

The midterms evidently shook Obama and Dr. Lubchenco.  On 4 November, just two days after the elections, NOAA issued a press release, titled "NOAA Policy Encourages Catch Shares to End Overfishing and Rebuild Fisheries."  The release gives every impression that they plan to rush implementation before the 2012 elections. 

The press release describes catch shares thus: "[A] fishery management tool that has shown it can help rebuild fisheries and sustain fishermen, communities, vibrant working waterfronts and culturally important fishing traditions."

This description continues the disinformation that catch shares cures the ills of the fishing industry.  Nonsense.  It does not.  The press release ignores the most important elements: capable administration and limiting the allowable catch. 

Dr. Lubchenco did not introduce appalling mismanagement to NOAA, but she has made America acutely aware of it.  NOAA was ineffective on the Gulf oil spill, and NOAA fisheries has been an outright disgrace, given incompetent management (that word again), corrupt disposition of funds generated by fines and property seizures from fishermen, and vindictive enforcement of regulations.  Dr. Lubchenco has vigorously tried to downplay and cover up the scandalous law enforcement revelations. 

Enter Gary Locke, the Secretary of Commerce.  Locke is nominally Dr. Lubchenco's boss, but he is not sufficiently simpatico to blend with the Obama-Lubchenco axis.  Locke, obviously embarrassed by NOAA's performance, committed to several corrective actions aimed at the fisheries law enforcement scandal.  He appeared on Maine Public Broadcasting on 27 September, where he said:
They [the NOAA fisheries law enforcement problems]'ve been allowed to persist for too long of a time, some going back -- and some of the issues and the cases raised and the complaints -- going back as far as 2001, but all of these problems are going to end on my watch as secretary of Commerce.

Governor Patrick of Massachusetts has asked Locke to consider steps to alleviate the problems.  Mayors Land of New Bedford, MA and Kirk of Gloucester, MA have also solicited Locke's assistance.  He has agreed, with conditions.  The following set of short-term and longer-term actions are essential.

Short-term:

  • Declare an emergency in accordance with the Magnuson-Stevens Act (MSA) and increase the allocations (catch limits) to offset the emergency created by the impetuous and poorly understood imposition of catch shares.
  • Declare a moratorium on any extensions of catch shares pending resolution of the long-term actions.
Long-term:

These would significantly improve the industry's outlook without impacting the sustainability science, but I fear that Locke's watch will be terminated by Obama before much happens.

Mike Johnson is a concerned citizen, a small-government conservative, and a live-free-or-die resident of New Hampshire.  E-mail: mnosnhoj@comcast.net

RECENT VIDEOS