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Individual Fishery Quotas: Allocation, Conservation, or Both?
By Carl Safina


Rebuilding depleted fish populations, protecting habitat, avoiding bycatch, and conserving ecosystem functions are the main goals of marine conservation. Are Individual Transferable Fishery Quotas (ITQs) likely to get us there? Do quota-rights regimes contribute directly to sustainable fishing by their nature-or, more accurately, by human nature?

Conservationists hold diverse views on the value and desirability of ITQ programs. Some enthusiastically support them as a management and conservation panacea. Others oppose them on ideological grounds. I believe ITQs can work and have worked. But I believe that whether they work depends entirely on the specifics of the plan, not on anything inherent in ownership of quota or resource.

Diversity of Views

Conservation groups have considered the pros and cons of quota share systems for a decade. Of those opposed, a major concern is consolidation; accumulation of quota seems likely to translate into major corporate ownership-the family farm tragedy goes wet. Some fear being outflanked politically by corporate lobbyists. Another fear is that ITQs could lead to foreign ownership of U.S. fishing. Groups supporting ITQ programs believe they provide a means to reduce effort in overcapitalized fisheries and control bycatch by slowing the race for fish. The reduction in effort, some argue, would ease the pressure on depleted populations and give them time to rebuild-but of course, that depends on the amount of the total quota. Some aren't quite sure whether they're "fer 'em or agin' 'em." After all, even if ITQs eliminate some major problems, the potential for highgrading, bycatch, and cheating is not eliminated.

But most in the conservation community, whether pro, con, or undecided, share common agreement on three things: that ITQs must help the effort toward sustainable fishing, that quota-rights programs must not create private ownership of what are now public resources, and that the public should get something back.

Making Sense of a Sense of Ownership

Many aspects of ITQs have the ring of property. And many aspects of property have the ring of axes, chain saws, pesticides, and mooing cows. Resource ownership is not a straight path to inspired resource stewardship. The largest consolidated attack on environmental protection wasn't called the "Property Rights Movement" for no reason. The only thing the Wise Users have been wise about was to cast greed as something private, when in reality it had everything to do with air, land, water, wildlife, and kids' futures.

Below the high-tide line, I'm not biting. ITQs have value. They can be bought and sold. They can be used as collateral to get a loan. They may be seized as assets by the Internal Revenue Service or child support enforcement. The owners of the quota shares have exclusive use of them. Economists, well-known as fonts of wisdom on human nature, say it is this sense of ownership, this exclusivity, that fosters stewardship. Quota ownership may create incentives to fish more slowly and carefully, to deliver a better product to market, possibly even to fish more selectively. I believe it slows fishing and reduces overcapitalization.

But can ownership include a commitment to public values and to conserving fish in the ecosystem? It can, but I don't think it inherently or consistently does. Conservation history shows that, when conservation becomes contentious, stewardship of the public's trust resources is usually advocated most forcefully by the public. That's why, regardless of whether quota shares can be owned, ownership and control of the actual resource base must remain in the public sector. Congress affirmed this in the Sustainable Fisheries Act of 1996. The law now states clearly that no property right arises in the awarding of quota shares, and that shares can be revoked by the Secretary of Commerce without compensation to the holder. So far, so good.

At What Cost?

Another major issue is payment for the commercial use of public resources. Without some initial payment, ITQ systems convey enormous financial windfalls to recipients with no compensation to the public who must continue to pay management costs. Managing ITQ systems can be relatively expensive to taxpayers. For instance, the very lack of seasonality that makes ITQs appealing means enforcement occurs anytime, rather than just during the "season."

Some conservation advocates insist that the public must receive some compensation for the use of their "property." I don't believe wildlife that has existed for millions of years is anyone's property, but I'll go along with the sentiment that it "belongs"-in the higher, less grabby sense of that word-to the public, to all people in trust, and therefore to none. Getting back to earth: The debate over whether we get a fair return for public resources turns on how much we get versus how much we give. Subsidized mining, livestock grazing, logging, and fishing all show repeated, systematic distortion of government by commercial political influence, and failure to internalize the economic and environmental costs generated. That means the public pays. To those who want to own fish quota, I say: ante up. Since ownership doesn't equal stewardship, we need fee collection mechanisms to get money from the use of fish into the job of enforcement, rebuilding, and conservation.

Conclusion: What do the fish get out of it?

In 1996 the Sustainable Fisheries Act suspended new ITQ programs for four years and Congress called for a study by the National Academy of Sciences. That study cites the public trust as a basis for fisheries policy-making, affirms the doctrine proscribing privatization of public property, acknowledges the need to balance between access and conservation, and cites the benefits from compensation to the public for exclusive use of public fish. Congress should heed the advice they commissioned.

I don't think ITQs are enough-by themselves-to stem the decline of our ocean fisheries. With or without ITQs, or during crafting of thoughtful ITQ systems, we will still require the main thing we still lack: the political will to uphold and enforce conservation and rebuilding objectives. Even after those objectives were set in the Sustainable Fisheries Act of 1996, overfishing continues, bycatch has been largely overlooked, and we have yet to reduce the harmful effects of fishing on marine habitats. The Sustainable Fisheries Act changed everything, except the way fisheries are managed.

Quota-sharing programs have the potential to be part of the solution if policy makers give thorough consideration to the factors that caused the controversy over these programs. Most importantly, policy must squarely face whether these programs offer conservation benefits. Any ITQ system needs a clear line of logic and articulated mechanisms showing how it will result in more sustainable fishing and more fish in the sea. Without that, ITQs, like so much of the failed fishery management practices of the past and present, chiefly divert the focus of fisheries management from resource concern to short-term money considerations. That would constitute little more than new ways to allocate the few remaining fish. And that would be too easy a way for managers to duck the real problem we need to maintain focus on: reconfiguring fishing for purposes of rebuilding depleted fish populations and brightening the future of fisheries.

Dr. Carl Safina founded the National Audubon Society's Living Oceans Program and currently serves as Audubon's vice president for marine conservation. He is a lecturer at Yale University and has served on the Mid-Atlantic Fisheries Management Council, the Smithsonian Institution's Ocean Planet advisory board, and the World Conservation Union's Shark Specialist Group. He is a recipient of the Pew Charitable Trust's Scholar's Award in Conservation and the Environment and, more recently, a MacArthur Fellowship. He authored the award-winning book Song for the Blue Ocean.

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