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June 29, 2010

Resistance on the waterfront

Catch shares proving to be very hard sell

For a decade, the leading advocate for a national catch share program for the fishing industry has been the Environmental Defense Fund, and the EDF's voice and face has been celebrated marine biologist Jane Lubchenco.

When President-elect Obama tapped Lubchenco to head the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and take stewardship over the resources of the seas, she was in a position to take her own advice, and she did.

The advocate became the administrator, and an ardent, if lonely crusade began to re-engineer the nation's oldest industry.

Still largely unmodernized, pre-global in scale, the fishing industry has continued to operate under archaic principles of profit-sharing between captain and crew based on handshake contracts and a shared desire to make a living from the sea.

The fishing people saw little reason to change, as Lubchenco and her supporters in EDF have learned.

The effort to impose market principles befitting big business has left the Obama administration alienated from its political base around the working waterfronts and, except for EDF, from much of the environmental sector as well.

Catch shares have proved a very hard sell.

• • •

A seminal policy paper published after the election of President Obama, primarily sponsored by EDF and written by Lubchenco and a team of like-minded scientists, asserted that "catch shares, regardless of their form, have been proven to restore economic and environmental health to ocean fisheries."

The paper explained that catch shares transform wild resources that have traditionally been commonly owned into tradeable catching rights. The value of those shares, no matter what their size, increases as the value of the fishery increases, encouraging conservation.

An environmental nonprofit with an affinity for market-based solutions, EDF sees catch shares as a virtual panacea for the troubles of the fisheries.

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