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A Better Way To Stop Overfishing

The BBC had a fascinating story a few days back about small-scale fishermen in Cumbria and the new regulations that are threatening to do them in. The fishermen, known as haaf netters, stand in the Solway Firth in water up to their armpits, scooping up fish with a net that hangs from a pole across their shoulders. They then kill the fish by whacking them over the head with a wooden mallet. They've been doing this since the Vikings were around, but lately they've been catching more fish than the recreational fishermen upstream would like. So, over the past years, they've been subject to increasingly strict regulations about when they can fish—regulations they say are putting them out of business.

These regulations are a good example of the most common—and most inefficient—strategy for preventing commercial overfishing: making it harder to fish. Sometimes this takes the form of equipment restrictions—say, a requirement to use smaller nets. Sometimes it takes the form of a shortened fishing season. Either way, it doesn't work. Commercial fishing boats that are forced to use smaller nets will generally just stay out longer, burning more fuel and taking up more crew time but coming back with the same amount of fish. A shortened fishing season just motivates fishermen to fish more intensely while they can—buying bigger, more powerful boats so they can get to the fishing grounds more quickly and catch more fish once they get there. This arms race—which often results in further reductions to the fishing season that, in turn, leave the powerful new boats sitting in port—benefits nobody.

The better strategy is to limit each fisherman to a certain amount of fish per year and not worry about how or when he goes about catching it. This is usually done by giving out tradable permits that represent a fraction of the total catch allowed each year in the fishery. New Zealand and Iceland regulate most of their fisheries with quota systems, but for some reason they haven't caught on in the United States. In the main place quotas have been adopted—in Alaska, to regulate the halibut fishery—the fishermen seem to consider them a success. Perhaps the 50-odd remaining haaf netters should take their cues and start campaigning for a quota system that would allow each of them to bop x number of fish over the head each year.

--Rob Inglis, High Country News