Under the catch-share system, fishery managers set an overall catch limit at the beginning of the season. Each fisherman will own a percentage of that catch. Just like shares in the stock market, the quotas can be traded or sold. The idea is that a market-based system will give fishermen more flexibility.
Not everyone is happy. Larry Collins, president of the Crab Boat Owners Association in San Francisco, is doubtful.
Collins is concerned that a market-based system will bring market manipulation. Under the rules, you don't have to be a fisherman to buy fish quotas, so it's possible that speculators or even environmental groups could buy into the market.
"You want hedge fund managers deciding when the people catch fish? Is that who you want to own your fish, or do you want to own them?" Collins asks.
Collins is also concerned about fishermen who make smaller catches. In Alaskan fisheries that use catch shares, some smaller boats opted to sell their fish quotas.
"That concentrated the resource in fewer and fewer hands. Now, I tend to think that public trust resources should be used to employ as many people as possible," he says.
Both of these features are benefits not costs. It's true that speculation can create bubbles and other problems but speculators also make the market more future-oriented and this will help to avoid the collapse of fishing stocks by making prices a better early warning system. Moreover, if environmentalists want to buy catch shares to increase the fishing stock then I am all for it. In Modern Principles, Tyler and I discuss how we bought and retired some SO2 making the air cleaner for everyone (you are welcome! :)).
Fewer, larger boats is also a benefit not a cost. Under the current system the influx of small boats is simply a form of rent-seeking which raises net social costs--too many fisherman chasing too few fish. Catch shares reduce over-capitilization in the industry raising productivity (see also Modern Principles on this point).
The main problem with catch-shares is setting the size of the catch, which inevitably is a politicized process. Massachussetts congressmen, for example, are trying to withold funds from NOAA until catch shares are increased. Nevertheless with so many fishing stocks nearing collapse it is clear that some limits are needed. Moreover, before catch-shares are put in place few people in the industry appreciate that temporary limits can lead to long-term increases in catch as the fishing stocks recover to sustainable levels. After catch-shares are put in place, however, it is sometimes the fishermen who lobby for greater limits not for monopoly reasons but as they come to recognize that a smaller limit leads to a larger stock and larger profits.
Here is my previous post, Reversing the Decline in Fish Stocks, on catch shares with more links.
Hat tip: Daniel Lippman.