THIS MONTH, Congress will consider whether to allow privatizing one of
America's vital natural resources -- the commercially valuable ocean
fish in our coastal waters. The impending decisions about the vast,
public, ocean domain will affect the whole country, but most of all
those states and communities on the coasts.
The federal government is charged with looking after America's
marine fisheries, which encompass all the fish species that fishermen
pursue off our coasts, such as tuna, rockfish and swordfish. How
these fisheries are managed will determine what sort of an ocean our
Unfortunately, Congress might give away uncontrolled, private
ownership of U.S. fisheries to a limited number of individuals and
corporations, which could yield serious consequences for both the
marine environment and our coastal fishing communities.
Already, America's fisheries are in bad shape. Forty-three percent
of the nation's managed fish species are seriously overfished. The
government has declared fisheries disasters in Alaska, New England
and here on the West Coast.
One poorly considered proposal to fix this problem is to parcel
out shares of our public fisheries to private interests through
Individual Fishing Quota (IFQ) programs, which give shareholders
exclusive rights to the fish. But where these market-driven programs
have been tried on a trial basis, they haven't worked well. In
halibut and sablefish fisheries in Alaska and the surf clam and ocean
quahog fisheries on the East Coast, they have had serious drawbacks
for local fishermen, the villages in which they live, and the health
of the fisheries themselves.
Since quotas can be bought and sold to the highest bidder, local
fishermen -- who can't compete with deep-pocketed corporations -- are
almost inevitably squeezed out. While corporations amass large shares
of the fishing take, traditional fishermen, their families, and
communities are forced
to abandon their heritage. Meanwhile, there is little incentive for
IFQ shareholders to reduce overexploitation or to protect the ocean
This is precisely what happened under the surf clam IFQ program in
New Jersey, where shares have become consolidated in the hands of a
few big companies. Now, the two largest shareholders are not local
fishermen, but rather one of the country's biggest accounting firms
and a national bank.
Moreover, because quotas are set based on the number of fish
historically caught by individual fishermen, those who tried to allow
stocks to replenish by fishing responsibly were penalized, while
those who fished rapaciously were rewarded.
Proponents of open-ended, unregulated IFQ programs often
misleadingly claim they will result in significant conservation
benefits by reducing the number of fishing vessels and, consequently,
impacts to the marine environment. But, as is typical, under the surf
clam IFQ program the number of boats in the fishery fell from 133 to
48, while the remaining boats tripled their catch. Fishermen lost their
jobs, but conservation was not enhanced.
In 1996, Congress recognized the dangers of poorly planned IFQ
programs and placed them under a four-year moratorium to allow time
to work out the flaws in the system. But while those four years
slipped by, our legislators did nothing.
Obviously, Congress cannot fix the quota system before the
moratorium expires on Sept. 30. At this point, the only reasonable
course of action is for Congress to extend the ban for another year.
This will allow time to establish clear and strong national standards
to ensure that individual fishing quotas safeguard our fishing
communities, fisheries and fishermen.
The new standards should recognize that fisheries are publicly owned
resources and grant IFQs for not more than five years, after which
time they may be renewed or denied, subject to satisfying defined
criteria. Individuals with no financial stake in the fishery system
would hold the reviews, to ensure fairness.
Furthermore, Congress should require anyone holding a quota to
provide additional conservation benefits to the fishery, such as
avoiding catching, killing and discarding unwanted species of fish
and protecting essential fish habitat. Excessive consolidation of
quotas must be avoided and preference should be given to fishermen
with records of conservation-minded fishing practices.
The oceans belong to all Americans, but those of us lucky enough
to live near the coasts bear a special responsibility for
safeguarding this heritage. Having once failed to meet its own
deadline, Congress needs to extend the IFQ moratorium and immediately
begin working out a solid plan to preserve and protect our fisheries
and our fishermen.
Pietro Parravano, from Half Moon Bay, is president of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fisherman's Associations. Lee Crockett is executive director of the Marine Fish Conservation Network in Washington, D.C.
©2000 San Francisco Chronicle