Oceans Incorporated

Privatizing Public Fish Stocks Not the Answer

The Santa Barbara Harbor

The statistics paint a grim picture: Roughly three-quarters of the major marine fish stocks are either depleted, overexploited, or being fished at their biological limit. The United Nations predicts that unless better management is introduced, commercial fish stocks will completely collapse by the year 2050.

That’s just 40 years away, not the distant future. We want to ensure that our children, and their children are able to eat fresh, wild seafood just as we do today in Santa Barbara. In order for this to happen, change must be made in the way we regulate global fisheries.

Enter individual fishing quotas, also known as IFQ or “catch shares.” A potentially great idea if developed and implemented carefully, a troubling program if used to privatize access to fish. This form of management divides up the total amount of each type or group of fish that can be caught in a given season and distributes the shares among fisherman.

However, in its current state, the plan, which includes ground fish off California, is severely flawed. It is not the traditional fisherman who are receiving these shares, but rather multinational fisheries corporations such as Packard, Sea World, and Wal-Mart, who view fish as just another dollar sign. The size and distribution of shares is based on catch history, or the amount that the entity caught in the past. Simply put, those who caught the most the previous year receive the catch shares for the next year, thus rewarding those who fish the hardest and the fastest, emptying our oceans thoughtlessly, one year at a time.

So, why is this something that we in Santa Barbara should care about? Such an approach to managing our natural resources has countless economic and environmental downsides. It gives massive corporations control over public fish resources and it gives incentives for industrialized seafood production.

Concentration of fishing in the hands of a few forces smaller-scale, historic fishermen out of work, with effects trickling throughout their communities. Catch-share would be the final nail in the coffin of many Santa Barbara fishermen already struggling in these tough economic times. Without its local fishing industry, Santa Barbara’s harbor would lose a lot of its charm for tourists and locals alike.

Catch-share programs are being implemented across the country without broad public discussion, and the plan is to implement catch-share in waters off California as well. Fortunately, our Congressional representative, Lois Capps, serves on the Natural Resources Committee in Congress, and therefore has the power to call for an oversight hearing by the House of Representatives on catch shares, which have not been finalized everywhere yet.

The decisions we make in the next few years regarding resource extraction and management will be of major importance to the future of the human race. Our current fisheries management is not effective for the long term and needs revamping, but privatization (which ironically hinders market benefits by creating primarily special-interest benefits) is not the answer.

Effective change must start at the local level, with a real effort to fish sustainably while ensuring that the ocean remains a public resource. We are a conscientious community with a powerful voice; we must now use this voice to demand that our ocean, our fish, seafood consumers, and our fishermen are protected and not subject to the harmful effect of privatization schemes. We must take responsibility now and call on Representative Capps to issue a hearing. For if not us, then who?

Holly Pearson is a volunteer with the Food and Water Watch Fair Fish Campaign, and an undergraduate at the University of California, Santa Barbara


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