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Managing commercial fishing activity is a complicated task, in which every small decision can have huge consequences. Whether to regulate fishing according to season, area or type of gear, and whether to allocate quotas for fishing activity – and if so, how much and to whom? – are all decisions that may trigger unexpected repercussions.
Thus, when the American government decided in 2005 to set up a Quota system for certain red king crab and snow crab fisheries in the Aleutian Islands and Alaska’s Bering Sea – the same crab fisheries featured in the television series Deadliest Take— Scientists were looking to see how this new rights-based fishing quota system would impact jobs and incomes.
Almost two decades later, scientists led by Joshua Abbott, an economist at Arizona State University, have shown that the quota system has led to a spectacular consolidation of the fishing fleet and fewer jobs. The remaining jobs, however, are longer-term and offer wages comparable to those before the change.
The consequences of the quota system are complex, Abbott says, but he hopes their analysis can help fisheries managers better understand the social and economic impacts of policy decisions.
When the US government implemented the quota system in 2005, it allocated quota shares to fishermen based on their catch histories. Shares, which confer exclusive harvesting rights to a proportion of each year’s allowable catch, are transferable, meaning owners can fish their share, rent it out, or pool their share with others to save on high fishing costs.
This is a big difference from how the fishery used to be managed, when regulators focused more on controlling the total catch. This approach led to the derby-style fishery, where vessels rushed into the remote, stormy seas of Alaska during the short winter openings. While the money may be good, the rampant fishing has come at a heavy cost in lost lives and lost ships.
“It was very dangerous,” says Miranda Westphal, Alaska Department of Fish and Game management biologist for the area. “And it was difficult to manage.”
Westphal says that under the old system, with crews fishing as hard and fast as they could, biologists had to know when the total allowable catch had been reached by tallying up reports from the fleet over marine radio.
The catch-limit approach to regulation has also led to incredible waste. When the catch limit was reached and the fishery was closed, fishermen threw their extra catches overboard, with unknown survival rates among those discarded crabs.
By giving fishing crews more time to catch their share, the quota system has improved safety and reduced wastage. But it also had complicated economic impacts, says Abbott. For example, because quota shares went to those who fished most efficiently, often the operators of larger vessels, the crab fleet has shrunk from over 200 to less than 70 today. The fishery now employs fewer people, with smallholders most likely to have lost their jobs.
But by forcing vessels to leave, the quotas increased the overall profitability of the fishery for those who remained. The longer fishing season has also allowed owners to spread maintenance and other costs over a greater number of fishing days. These and other factors have helped create more stable, longer-term jobs than before, Abbott says.
However, the average salaries of shipowners, captains and crews remained stable. This is because some of the income that went directly to them was redirected to pay the owners of the new quota shares, many of whom decided to lease their shares rather than fish them themselves. Some complain that these so-called wheelchair fishermen collect income without investing in the fishery, says Abbott.
Gabriel Prout, a third-generation Alaskan fisherman, knows the impacts of share leasing. Talking via satellite phone from the crabber ship silver vaporizer, who hid on St. Paul’s Island while waiting for a blizzard in the Bering Sea, he says quota rental payments can eat up more than half of annual profits. Quota leasing dramatically increases the already high costs of fishing, leaving a tighter budget to pay for fuel, bait, repairs and new gear. “There hasn’t been a new boat built in this fishery for 30 years,” says Prout.
Increasingly, he says, shipowners are caught between the rising costs of maintaining an aging fleet and the expense of leasing stock to people who are no longer investing in the fishery. The best way to survive, he says, is to buy — not rent — a share of quota. But that can be prohibitively expensive, especially as the stock continues to consolidate through sales, inheritances and other means.
But Prout also sees the benefits outlined in Abbott’s research. The quota system “has put an end to the race for the fish”, he says, and has resulted in a better product because vessels can now stagger deliveries, leading to less damage and loss.
“It’s all about trade-offs,” says Abbott, who hopes his research will improve understanding of the give-and-take inherent in management decisions.
However, the study comes at a time when Alaska’s crab fishery is becoming increasingly perilous. Harvesting of red king crab in the Bristol Bay area of the Bering Sea was recently canceled due to low population numbers. For a similar reason, regulators have also cut this winter’s snow crab harvest by 88%. The cuts will hit Prout and others hard. Researchers suspicious the cause is the rapidly warming Bering Sea waters to blame, which likely stresses crab populations and allows new predators such as cod to venture into the once inhospitable area.
Abbott says there is no evidence that the quota system contributed to today’s problems. And although his research is unrelated to climate change, he believes that quotas offer a better mechanism for adapting to change than was available in the old derby-style fishery.
“Quotas will not magically create resilience in a time of rapid climate change,” he says. “But they represent a mechanism that can facilitate adaptation.”