In recent decades we've come to realize that life in the oceans is neither inexhaustibly abundant nor endlessly resilient.

Overfishing, habitat destruction and unintentional killing of marine animals are just a few of the problems that have moved nations to limit access to their ocean resources.

Government attempts to sustain fisheries by issuing licenses, establishing seasons, restricting access to areas, and prescribing allowable gear have been generally accepted. Calculating and managing for biologically acceptable catch levels of various fish species is considered normal practice, even if fishermen often grumble about the data upon which management is based.

There is a rising interest in shifting management of ocean fisheries to arrangements where fishermen or corporations are granted exclusive access to wild fish or shellfish populations. Such dedicated access privileges (DAPs) can range from a simple fishing license to the extreme case of tradable individual fishing quotas (IFQs), which end up being treated as private property.

Rights-based approaches that provide private access to public resources can offer incentives of economic efficiency for the holder of the privileges and convenience for fishery managers. But if these systems are not carefully designed, the public loses.

In the rush to privatize natural resources, what may appear to be a panacea could turn out to be a social disaster as in British Columbia, where license and quota ownerships are now highly concentrated away from fishing-dependent communities, and new generations must be millionaires to enter most fisheries. This type of business efficiency does not protect the historical integrity of our coastal fishing towns.

If social equity and the heritage of traditional ways of life are sacrificed in a race for efficiency, what will we have gained? If jobs are lost in the process, will it be worth the change?

Given the inherent dangers of rights-based management, especially IFQs, it is essential that the United States enact national standards to protect the environment and fishing communities, if such programs are to be established. These standards should require that the public earns measurable conservation benefits for granting dedicated access to living marine resources. Such access should be granted for limited durations so there is never any confusion as to the public ownership of the resource. The existing characteristics of local fishing fleets should be respected and protected as much as possible.

Fishing privileges should not become a commodity to be traded independent of the fisheries and communities that depend on the wild catch from the sea. There must be strict limitations on the amount of quota that individuals and corporations can accumulate or control. Such measures can help ensure that higher value fisheries products coming from small coastal businesses will have a place in the new economy of sustainability.

Reasonable limits that are not overly prescriptive are included in the Fishing Quota Standards Act of 2005 (HR 3278) now under consideration by the U.S. House of Representatives. Congress should swiftly pass this bill into law.

Peter Huhtala is senior policy director for the Pacific Marine Conservation Council; Ed Backus is vice president of fisheries for Ecotrust

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