A Better Way To Manage Fisheries

Fisheries management is an excruciatingly complex subject. The management (or mismanagement)  of fisheries can very rapidly affect the viability of the industry and has all sorts of carry on effects. Martin & Ottaway sees these effects in fishing boat accident investigations and fishing boat valuations. For example, a fishing boat value is not just tied to the market, or even to its specific trade, but can also be affected by applicable fishing licenses and fishery management methods. While fishing will always be dangerous, as can be noted at the end of this story, well designed and well managed fisheries tend to be much safer than poorly managed fisheries.

Improper management can result in complete vessel value collapse, as has occurred in Spain and was described in a New York Times article, while a successful management program can have many positive carry on effects.

Seattle Admiralty Attorney (and fellow wooden boat aficionado) Chip Jordan introduced me to an example of a program that is worthy of further consideration. It concerns the Seattle fishing schooner fleet.

The Seattle fishing schooners are not sailing schooners, but rather an active fleet of about 30 wooden long line fishing boats that mostly fish for halibut and black cod. All the vessels are well (some beautifully) maintained, some are now over 100 years old, and all are very nicely profitable. So how can that be? Isn’t fishing supposed to be a miserable way to make a living? The bottom line is that these fishing boats are subject to a catch restriction approach (quota shares) that allows sustainable fisheries. It also provides the fishermen with the choice to fish when the fishing is good (rather than being involved in a fisheries derby), the ability to deliver fresh fish when the market price is attractive, and removes the need to invest in ever more powerful, but less profitable equipment.

The bizarre thing is that the approach builds strength upon strength, some of which are purely commercial, but others that deal with esthetics and quality of life. As noted, the real story is long and complex, but further details can be found in the links and also in a wonderful video made by John Sabella for the Fishing Vessel Owners Association. The FVOA is sort of the home base for the Seattle schooner fleet and even provides mutual support through the Marine Safety Reserve self protection pool.

In summary, consider these outcomes from effective fisheries management:

1. A sustainable fisherman’s income for owner and crew alike.

2. Because income is reasonable, there is interest for younger people to join the fleet (Although it is not all that easy to convince the older fishermen to retire).

3. The fish is not caught in one crazy drive, but rather over the course of the season. This allows a much larger portion of the catch to be delivered fresh, which benefits the public.

4. There is still competition amongst fishermen, since timing of your trip and catch determine how much the fish can be sold for on the market.

5. Since the market is defined and limited, there is no benefit in getting a bigger or more powerful boat. Instead money can be allocated to proper maintenance of existing equipment.

6. With proper maintenance, a well built vessel does not need to be scrapped and traditional vessels will continue to be encountered on the working waterfront.

7. Since the decision to go out and fish is related to multi variable decision making, instead of being forced to fish on the season opening date, fishermen do not have to rush out in bad weather and safety is dramatically improved.

8. During fishing derbies, catch is simply dumped into the hold as fast as possible, but with preset quotas, the catch is much more carefully handled which increases product quality and price at the dock.

Are there downsides? Yes, and they are subtle and complex, but it is sustainable results that count, and these are results to be proud of as a fisherman, a citizen, a seafood lover, or an environmentalist.