For a long time, individual fishing quotas were sort of like urine-separating toilets: a great idea but kind of exotic, the sort of thing that might not catch on anywhere in the United States, at least outside of Alaska. But then, last Friday, the Pacific Fishery Management Council voted unanimously to adopt an individual fishing quota system for an area stretching from southern California to the Canadian border, meaning that as of 2011, West Coasters will have the opportunity to observe IFQs in action within walking distance of their front doors. 

I've written about individual fishing quotas before—how they keep fishermen safe, prevent wasteful overinvestment in fishing-fleet capacity, and might even keep fish from shrinking. The plan approved on Friday aims to do all these things, but it also uses a quota system to tackle a more novel challenge: limiting the catch of non-target species. Fishing nets aren't particularly selective about which species of fish they catch, meaning that fishermen sometimes find themselves unintentionally catching fish from species that are at dangerously low population levels. Until now, the approach to protecting threatened fish species on the West Coast has been to close the entire fishery for the season after the overall catch of threatened fish goes past a certain level. This creates a classic tragedy of the commons: While fishermen can't make their nets species-selective, they can exercise some control over what species they catch by changing when and where they fish. But if the season closure date is based on the overall number of threatened fish caught, rather than the number of threatened fish an individual fisherman catches, the fishermen have no incentive to avoid catching threatened fish.

The new West-Coast quota system attempts to solve this problem by giving fishermen individual quotas for non-target as well as target species. If they catch too many threatened non-target species, they have to stop fishing for the season, or at least figure out how to fish more selectively. It's a smart idea, and hopefully one that will spread.

--Rob Inglis, High Country News