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NOAA Moves Forward With Catch Shares

When Congress reauthorized the nation's main fishing law in 2006, it directed the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to end overfishing by 2010. That's a tough goal, but one promising tool is a type of management called catch shares. Earlier this week, NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco put her weight behind this approach.

With catch shares, individual fishers own rights to catch fish. They can trade or sell these rights, which makes fishing more efficient and provides a market-based incentive not to overfish. The system has been shown to lower the chance of a fish stock collapsing.

Speaking to a top committee of fishery management councils—the regional bodies that set fishing policies—in Boston on Tuesday, Lubchenco made her case:

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.

Lubchenco noted that the agency's budget request for FY 2010 included $18.6 million to help the struggling New England groundfish fishery implement a catch-share program. She also announced a new task force that will figure out how the agency can make sure that councils consider this type of program when they update their management plans and how NOAA can provide technical support.

Although Lubchenco has a reasonably big stick—she recommends to the secretary of commerce whether to approve the council's plans—she's starting out with encouragement and incentives. Experts say it's the right approach. "Make it easy, grease the skids with some money, and celebrate the successes," as David Festa of the Environmental Defense Fund puts it. 

Fisheries scientist Andy Rosenberg of the University of New Hampshire, Durham, is also a fan, but he cautions that tricky issues remain to be resolved, such as how recreational fishing might be dealt with under a catch-shares plan.