Individual Fishing Quotas (IFQ), also known as Catch Shares, have now become the bureaucracy’s single most effective tool for the elimination of small boat fishermen. Fishery managers set an annual poundage quota for a given species, and then divvy it up to individual fishermen, based on their past catch history. Fishermen may then work until they reach their allocation limit, at which point they must quit fishing.
For many years, stock protection was mainly facilitated by the use of size limits, seasonal closures, and gear restrictions. With those tools, fishery managers could easily regulate all fisheries, and effectively provide – what was supposed to be their only goal – stock protection. Not satisfied with such a limited mission, however, the fishing bureaucracy moved to expand their scope with a new goal – effort limitation.
Effort limitation opened up a new world for the bureaucracy, by allowing them to enter the realm of controlling a fisherman’s business and his life. In the early stages, fishery managers reduced effort with license reductions, limited entry, and income requirements, all of which slid fishery management into the area of business management. When the Lobster Trap Certificate Program (LTCP) was initiated, fishery bureaucrats gave up the pretense, and came out in the open with their desire to regulate businesses.
The LTCP became the Keys fishermen’s first taste of individual allocation, when fishery managers doled out lobster traps based on a fisherman’s personal catch history. In every study that had been done, our lobster industry was declared to be one of the healthiest fisheries in the nation. Effective rules had long been in place, and the industry had been stable and productive for many years. Frustrated over their inability to find reasonable justification for new restrictions, fishery managers turned to a Duke University professor, who came up with the brilliant conclusion, that our industry was overcapitalized.
Claiming that we were expending too much time and money to catch the lobster, fishery bureaucrats moved forward with a program to make us more efficient. The irony of the most inefficient body in America – our federal government – teaching businessmen to be more efficient, apparently went completely over the heads of humorless bureaucrats. Maintaining that fishermen could catch the same amount (they actually claimed we would catch more) with less traps, regulators moved forward with the LTCP and a systematic reduction in the number of traps that each fisherman had been allocated.
Using a monitoring statistic called Catch Per Unit Effort (CPUE), managers assured fishermen that they would catch the same amount of lobster with half the traps. As with every promise ever made by the bureaucracy, this one didn’t work either. CPUE remained static, and a fisherman with half the traps he once had, caught half the lobster he once did. With the industry trap number now halved, catch has also fallen by half, and fishery managers are desperately searching for any reason other than trap reduction to explain the drop in production.
The LTCP gives us a perfect example of what happens when government tries to control individual business decisions. If the fishing bureaucracy was interested in healthy and productive fisheries, they would recognize that efficiency comes at the boat level, and they should stick to running their own business, which is stock management. But, since the main mission of all bureaucracy today is the accumulation of power, in no case are they going to give up control once they have it.
Meanwhile, federal fishery managers were moving swiftly forward with annual species quotas. Quickly recognizing the power that quotas gave them over fishermen, they moved into the ultimate phase of fishery control – allocating the allowable catch to individual fishermen. Moving slowly at first, bureaucrats patiently initiated IFQ’s in several targeted fisheries through clever manipulation of the fishermen. Now however, using the re-authorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Act (MSA) as an excuse, they are aiming to forcefully implement IFQ’s in every fishery.
Fishery managers are interpreting the MSA as requiring them to set quotas in all fisheries, and their method of choice is with IFQ’s. Fishermen are assured by confident bureaucrats, that when they no longer have to deal with the ‘gold rush mentality’ of open competition for quotas, commercial fishing becomes as smooth as a country waltz….No more need to hurry out and get your fair share before the quota is filled….Catch your share when the price is high, and no longer be at the mercy of the fish houses….No longer need to risk your life by going when the weather is bad….Don’t have enough pounds? – buy more, they’re transferable….Ready to retire? Sell your shares and have an instant pension….Wow! Won’t everyone want to be a commercial fisherman now?
It matters not to the bureaucrats, that their quota interpretation takes great liberty with both the wording and the intention, of the MSA. It matters not that thousands of fishermen will lose their livelihoods, and it matters not that IFQ’s will mean the end of traditional, small boat fisheries. It doesn’t even matter that it places a limit on every fisherman’s income, and freezes out young people from ever entering the fisheries. It only matters that IFQ’s are now declared to be effective resource management, and will make life tidier and easier for fishery managers.
Once bureaucratic fishery managers set their sights on an agenda like IFQ’s, they will do and say anything to reach their goal. As one may well imagine, individual quotas garner little support among competitive, hard working fishermen. They are constantly working in a hostile environment to improve both their methods and catch volume, and have no fear of competing with other fishermen for a fixed quota. It would be hard to think of anything more contradictory to the spirit of American capitalism than the competition stifling IFQ’s.
However, as with all other fishery regulations, commercial fishermen are essentially shut out of the rule making on IFQ’s. Fishery managers instituted the first IFQ fisheries by rigging the elections so that ¾ of the fishermen – almost all of whom would have voted against it – were not allowed to vote. As in the case of Grouper IFQ’s, only those with 8,000 lbs or more of annual catch, were allowed to vote. Then surprise! Surprise! After the perfunctory vote, IFQ’s were implemented, and fishery managers proudly announced another successful joint effort between government and industry.
In truth, public hearings and advisory boards – the only input venues for fishermen – are mere tokenism, and useful only for the bureaucracy to fulfill the hollow requirements of public input. The rule making rests squarely within the offices of fishery managers, and their interpretations and agenda are always accepted. The state and federal council members are political appointees who actually have the final vote on everything, but they are primarily made up of college professors, recreational fishermen, environmental advocates, and assorted bureaucrats, who simply rubber stamp the staff’s recommendations.
Commercial fishermen are rarely represented on the councils, and the few that have been appointed, are usually ones who have only a tenuous connection to commercial fishing and show a willingness to go along and get along with the bureaucrats. Yet, we are expected to believe that good fishery law can emanate from people who know nothing about commercial fishing. One can only wonder how many school teachers and firemen are making the rules for the State Board of Medical Examiners, and whether accountants and electricians are drawing up the legal guidelines for the National Bar Association.
Bureaucrats do not – can not – understand the life of a commercial fisherman. Even as fishermen cannot understand the complexities of the bureaucratic system without actually working in it, fishery managers cannot possibly understand fishing without spending years trying to scratch out a living from the sea. Yet bureaucrats proceed as if they are professional fishermen, and their laptops computers can direct the perfect rules for fishery management.
If our small boat fishery in the Keys is to survive, IFQ’s must be stopped. Total catch will soon end up in the hands of a few large producers, and our young people will be permanently excluded from the fisheries. Once IFQ’s are implemented, it will be too late to turn back, and the face of our traditional fishery in the Keys will change forever. Hopefully, the recent ‘March on Washington’ is a sign that fishermen everywhere – both commercial and recreational – have had enough of bureaucrats controlling their lives. But for Keys fishermen, if they are ever to fight a battle to the end, it should be over IFQ’s, and it must be now!
Next: IFQ’s – The Reality