Fishy Business


Last week, I critiqued Ron Arnold’s story about the “catch share” program being instituted in New England, saying that free-market environmentalists should support Individual Fishing Quota (IFQ) programs. I stand by that point. 

What is interesting, however, is that the more I look into it, the more I realize that what is being imposed (literally – see below) in New England is not the sort of catch share program I support. As happened with what became cap-and-trade in energy policy, the left has taken a good idea and perverted it so that it is a ghastly parody of the free market institution.

First, it seems that the scientific claim on which the call for action is based is exaggerated. Students of the environmental movement should not be surprised at this, as it is a pattern that repeats itself from DDT to global warming. The claim is that the fisheries as currently managed are in crisis and severely overfished. This does not appear to be the case.

For many years, these fisheries have been subject to regulation that sets a Total Allowable Catch (TAC), which represents the amount of fish scientists believe can be sustainably removed from the fishery. The TAC has not been exceeded for many fish species for years, and in most cases the catch landed isn’t even close to the TAC.  For instance, in the last year for which full figures are available, 2008, only 6% of the TAC for Haddock in the George’s Bank area was landed. Fishing sources tell me that this significant undercatch is because of the excessive amount of regulation that dictate when and where fishermen can fish (a “complex web” that is likely to get more complicated if the environmentalists’ latest attempt to designate “critical habitat” for the North Atlantic Right Whale succeeds.) Regulations also lead to significant amounts of caught fish being returned dead to the sea.  These regulations will be unaffected, for the most part, by a transition to catch share.

Secondly, the catch share program is not a true IFQ scheme of the sort that has worked in New Zealand, Iceland and elsewhere around the world. In this peculiarly American version, quota shares are not being distributed to fishermen, but to fishing “sectors.” These sectors will then lease out the permits to fishermen. The “sectors” that are getting the permits are almost exclusively signed up to the environmentalist groups’ definition of sustainable fishing, so they are likely to lease permits only to “acceptable” fishing companies. 

It is like an energy cap-and-trade scheme where the only companies that got carbon allowances were those that had signed up to the US Climate Action Partnership (which was, of course, the unstated reason behind USCAP in the first place).  So the vehicle for allocating permits has become a special interest of itself.

Finally, for now, the reason why this sectoral scheme was used is because, under the Magnuson Stevens Act (Sec. 303A on Limited Access Privilege Programs), any IFQ program would have to be approved of by 2/3rds of the fishermen involved in a referendum.  By allocating quotas to sectors, NOAA has performed an end-around run around the act, completely in contravention of the spirit of the law, if not the letter.  No wonder the fishermen feel aggrieved.

There are many more reasons to criticize the New England program. Free-marketers should support properly-designed IFQ programs, but the one that NOAA is literally imposing on New England stinks like a week-old fish.

Thanks to all those who contacted me in response to my prior post for opening my eyes on this typical piece of environmentalist newspeak.