Are fishermen being ‘robbed’ of their livelihood by over-regulation?

I confess, in the past I’ve been very sceptical of claims by commercial fishermen that their livelihoods are threatened by over-regulation.  I’ve seen too much ‘factory fishing’, where entire fish populations are driven to the point of collapse by over-exploitation.  (For example, I’ve never forgiven the then-Soviet Union for sending in bottom trawlers to Mozambique after that nation’s independence from Portugal.  They wiped out the prawn beds off Lourenço Marques [today Maputo] in just six months.  Whilst the national prawn industry continues, it’s based in other centers today, and has never been as good as before, according to acquaintances who were there at the time.)

Nevertheless, a new book, ‘The Fish Market‘, argues that new regulations and the so-called ‘catch-shares’ program have idled thousands of fishermen, effectively depriving them of a livelihood.

In an article discussing the book’s findings, the New York Post reports:

The town of St. George, off the Bering Sea near Alaska, was long home to some of the most robust pollock fishing in the country. But due to a fishing rights management scheme called “catch shares,” the town has no rights to fish its own waters and regularly watches their former industry literally pass them by.

“Every year, the industry takes about $2 billion in gains out of this fish resource on the Bering Sea,” St. George Mayor Pat Pletnikoff tells Lee van der Voo in “The Fish Market.” “Not one plug nickel sticks to St. George.”

Catch shares work by dividing our oceans just like any other physical property, creating theoretical property lines. Then the rights to fish different species in various sections are awarded to applicants — which could be individuals or companies — based on how much fish they catch over a certain period of time. These rights are given by eight fishery councils throughout the country, which also place restrictions on how much of any species can be fished.

While catch shares are credited with greater species management — the US government found in 2007 that of 230 species of fish, 92 were going quickly extinct due to overfishing — the catch-shares program has virtually privatized our oceans, destroying the livelihoods of many lifelong fishermen and other small businesses in the process.

While any system has winners and losers, catch shares allow for one major exploitation: Those who own the rights to fish a certain area can rent or sell them like feudal landlords, in perpetuity. That means fishermen, who used to freely fish certain areas, now have to rent those same areas from absentee landlords.

. . .

The bizarre setup means owners of fishing boats have become the equivalent of Uber drivers for share owners who take anywhere from 50 percent to 75 percent of the profit.

Owners of less than 20 percent of a boat are required to be aboard any vessel catching their fish, but are not required to fish. This has led to boat owners offering amenities such as “big screen and satellite TVs, massive DVD collections, quality grub and staterooms” to attract share owners aboard to relax while the owner and his crew do the back-breaking work of fishing.

There’s more at the link.

I hadn’t been aware of the impact of this new approach, but if the book’s author is correct, it looks like yet another attempt to ‘restore order by regulation’.  I can’t think of many cases in any industry, or with any natural resource, where that’s worked.  Whenever bureaucrats and regulations multiply, it seems to me that natural balance and individual enterprise lose.



  1. Since these are shared resources, I suppose government regulation is inevitable. That said, it does seem to me that the "ownership" should devolve to local entities. Waters within – say – 3 miles of a town – the rights belong to the town. Between towns, they belong to the state. If we take the 3 miles as the local limit, then anything outside of that, so 3 to 12 miles (or 200?) belongs to the country.

    Even better, of course, would be to outlaw wild fishing entirely. Farm what you need, leave the wildlife alone. Here, in Switzerland (a land-locked country, do note), we have all sorts of fish farms. Ordinary water stuff like trout, of course, but also sturgeon farms, shrimp farms, and soon a salmon farm. Why muck up the oceans, when you can grow the stuff perfectly well locally?

  2. As you correctly noted, modern fishing gear is capable of quickly depleting a population to the point where it will take a very long time to reach its former levels (and it's entirely possible that it never will if small-scale fishing continues or the ecological balance shifts in favor of other species). Thus regulation is an inevitable necessity if commercial fishing is to continue as an industry.

    How best to regulate such an industry is a good question that has no clear answers right now. What is clear is that there is no one method that provides the best results. Differences in behavior, reproduction, distribution, etc. mean that different approaches will work for different species.

    For example, the albacore referenced in the article are a "highly migratory" species that are only in the area for a specific season. The vast majority of albacore caught by the Pacific fleet are on hook-and-line, so the upper limit to what each boat can catch in a day is quite low.

    Pollock, on the other hand, are quite concentrated in the Bering Sea and aggregate in huge schools. The vast majority of the landings come from mid-water trawls which can catch thousands of fish at a time. Average daily per-vessel landings are in excess of 100,000lbs. Therefore regulation (of any type) is going to be more stringent because the fleet is much more capable of depleting the population.

    Are catch-shares the best way? I have no idea. However, the Alaskan pollock fishery is one of the largest in the world and has been widely recognized as sustainable. Whether or not the current regulation is the best it's clear that A) some regulation is necessary and B) current regulation is producing large amounts of food sustainably while greatly contributing to the US economy.

  3. The one thing govt does best — extinguish the drive to produce and innovate.
    I'm sure fishing is the same as farming. Old Timers don't have to discourage the young from following in the family business when they can see first hand what producing something of value entails and the progressive tax burden on those that are self employed.

  4. I live in Galicia in NW Spain famed for the quality of its fish and seafood. (Where the women are strong and the men not so good looking 😉 People here tend to avoid the fish farm product, preferring instead the wild variety, swearing that the difference in taste is noticeable

    Myself? I prefer meat.

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