The town of St. George, off the Bering Sea near Alaska, was long home to some of the most robust pollock fishing in the country. But due to a fishing rights management scheme called “catch shares,” the town has no rights to fish its own waters and regularly watches their former industry literally pass them by.
“Every year, the industry takes about $2 billion in gains out of this fish resource on the Bering Sea,” St. George Mayor Pat Pletnikoff tells Lee van der Voo in “The Fish Market.” “Not one plug nickel sticks to St. George.”
Catch shares work by dividing our oceans just like any other physical property, creating theoretical property lines. Then the rights to fish different species in various sections are awarded to applicants — which could be individuals or companies — based on how much fish they catch over a certain period of time. These rights are given by eight fishery councils throughout the country, which also place restrictions on how much of any species can be fished.
While catch shares are credited with greater species management — the US government found in 2007 that of 230 species of fish, 92 were going quickly extinct due to overfishing — the catch-shares program has virtually privatized our oceans, destroying the livelihoods of many lifelong fishermen and other small businesses in the process.
While any system has winners and losers, catch shares allow for one major exploitation: Those who own the rights to fish a certain area can rent or sell them like feudal landlords, in perpetuity. That means fishermen, who used to freely fish certain areas, now have to rent those same areas from absentee landlords.
When the catch shares were implemented, arguing over the issue in the industry was fierce.
“Whether you were for it or against it, most people thought it was insanity that the government wanted to give away the fish in the ocean,” van der Voo writes. “It was the equivalent of handing the national forests over to the timber companies.”
The bizarre setup means owners of fishing boats have become the equivalent of Uber drivers for share owners who take anywhere from 50 percent to 75 percent of the profit.
Owners of less than 20 percent of a boat are required to be aboard any vessel catching their fish, but are not required to fish. This has led to boat owners offering amenities such as “big screen and satellite TVs, massive DVD collections, quality grub and staterooms” to attract share owners aboard to relax while the owner and his crew do the back-breaking work of fishing.
Van der Voo shares the story of The Viking Spirit, a 57-foot steel boat where the workers are longline fishing for sablefish. The fishermen aboard the Spirit are hired hands who do the hard work of catching the fish, many of their hands “clamped closed and in pain” from the heavy silver hooks they use.
But while the workers break their bodies — including Captain Vern Crane, who owns the boat and still owes about a third of the $650,000 he paid for it — Bob Baldwin sleeps soundly in a stateroom, van der Voo writes. Baldwin, a 70-year-old fisherman, negotiated with Crane to take 65 percent of the catch’s profits. (Due to having to compete with low-balling fishermen, some in Crane’s position give away as much as 75 percent.) But there is no requirement for Baldwin to work — in a sense, he’s on the boat as a landlord, and the job is “a sharecropper’s gig on a rough sea.”
While catch shares were supposed to solve the problem of fish species going extinct, it often fails in that area. Fishing for one species can harm another, as in the example of corporate-owned trawlers that hunt for pollock and groundfish but kill halibut in their travels.
This catch-shares program emerged from efforts to save the grouper from overfishing. In 2007, “individual fishing quotas” were instituted. “It meant privatizing the rights to catch grouper in the Gulf of Mexico. Regulators would cap the number of fish that could be caught, but the right to fish then would be doled out, like property, to the people that had historically fished them.”
Van der Voo points out there are fairer ways to save the fish. Oregon, for example, has a system for catching albacore where fisherman pay a fee and sell their catch locally without anyone snatching up rights, which is working economically and environmentally.
But for most of the country, the system mostly stands as is, meaning life will become ever harder for fishermen and fishing towns.
“I never thought there was anything wrong with a family-owned farm,” said Pletnikoff. “There was a certain amount of pride. Fisheries were always that way. They were a mom-and-pop operation. Every child in the family became a fisherman and loved it. Nowadays it is nothing like that. It is Monsanto on the ocean.”