A month ago, the US Senate Subcommittee on Oceans and Fisheries held field hearings in Boston over whether or not to privatize the oceans.
A group of businessmen is trying to remove the moratorium on ''individual transferable quotas,'' which give the holder exclusive rights to catch specific types of commercial fish. Before we foolishly parcel out the ocean, we ought to consider the evidence from 70 years of experience with another form of allotment.
The grasslands of Arizona may seem a long way from Cape Cod, but the West bears the scars of a wrongheaded attempt to protect a similarly precious and threatened resource. Established in 1934, grazing allotments were intended to end overgrazing by giving farmers the right to graze their livestock on sections of publicly owned land.
The number of cattle permitted per area depended on how many the government thought the land could support. This was determined by the variety and quantity of edible plants growing on the range. Allotments were intended to make ranchers better stewards of the land through ownership.
By all accounts, grazing allotments have been a dismal failure. At the last official survey of rangeland in 1980, only 15 percent of the land could be classified as good. The overwhelming majority was fair to very poor, meaning that of all potential plant species once present, up to four-fifths had vanished.
And so it will be with New England fisheries if transferable quotas become a management tool. Like grazing allotments, quotas would divide up the fish in the ocean among a handful of commercial operators. They - or their agents - will have exclusive rights, forever, to take a share of the ocean's resources.
This privatization scheme would only hasten the decline of fish stocks. Many species are vanishing because habitat is being degraded by heavy equipment dragged across the seabed. By permitting this gear, we are preventing breeding areas from recovering, and fish stocks will never rebuild to plentiful levels. Privately held quotas will not correct this problem or restore habitat.
Fish stocks in coastal waters are also declining as a result of bycatch - fish caught indiscriminately along with the intended species. New England fisheries lack an effective force of paid observers who keep track of everything caught aboard each fishing vessel. Instead, landings are counted to estimate fishing mortality. The absurdity of this approach was highlighted last May when the limit for cod in the Gulf of Maine was reduced to 30 pounds per trip. This Draconian measure did not help reduce mortality; it only generated more dead and wasted discards as operators culled their nets for the most marketable cod.
Transferable quotas would make the problem of bycatch worse. In other fisheries, operators often ''high grade'' their landings. This is the practice of discarding all but the largest fish. Faced with scarcity of their allotted species, quota holders in the Northeast could take months, even a year, to reach their limit by keeping only the choicest specimens, leaving in their wake tons of dead and dying fish.
Transferable quotas also spell doom for fishing communities. In recent times of uncertainty, fishermen have been advised to shift their focus from groundfish, like cod or halibut, to dogfish. We have been told to sell back our boats. Today, many inshore fishermen can't make a living pursuing groundfish, because the stocks have moved too far off shore.
While we wait for species to recover, we support ourselves as painters or construction workers. When the quotas are handed out, the fish in the Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank will be divided among corporate fleets. Many of the quotas will go to foreign companies operating through domestic fronts. Private investors will grab the others, hoping to make a quick buck.
Individual transferable quotas would no more save New England's fishing industry than the grazing allocations saved Western grasslands. Besides, the Sustainable Fisheries Act already provides the basic tools we need to rebuild sustainable resources. By enforcing the act's provisions, we can protect habitats for spawning, feeding, and shelter. Furthermore, the law enables us to establish and enforce limits on bycatch by forcing owners to acknowledge their impact on species other than their target fish. Both of these measures will work, but not overnight.
Now is the time for New England's fishermen to renew their commitment to restraint as nature does its work. Above all, we must not allow impatience to force us into making mistakes. That is the surest way to condemn our livelihoods to extinction.
Paul W. Parker is executive director of the Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fishermen's Association.
© Copyright 2000 Globe Newspaper Company