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Who Should Own the Oceans?
Published on Monday, September 25, 2000 in the San Francisco Chronicle
Who Should Own the Oceans?
Congress To Consider Privatizing One Of America's Vital Natural Resources
by Pietro Parravano and Lee Crockett
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 children inherit.

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 environment.

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


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