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An Under Sea Economy Could Solve Fishery Woes

03/23/2012 09:27 EDT | Updated 05/23/2012 05:12 EDT

Writing in the National Post last Wednesday, John Ivison said that Ottawa was finally getting serious about fishery reform on the east coast.

Not before time. The fishery should be a source of wealth and prosperity for Atlantic communities, not a social program and gateway to EI benefits as it is today. It would have to be a genuine industry, managed both sustainably and profitably. Otherwise it will die as the older generation retires and there is no one to take their place.

The fishery's central problem lies squarely in the absurd fiction that managing the resource via central planning will ever be anything but an abject failure. That's why Ivison's story, which says Ottawa is considering an approach based on markets and incentives, is such good news, if true.

As I wrote several years ago when I lived in Atlantic Canada, our politicians control access to the fishery, but don't benefit from its sound management. Fish don't vote, but people in coastal communities do, and they want more access to the resource and the EI access that comes with it. The result: Politicians allow too many people to do too much fishing until stocks collapse.

The most successful fishing nations in the world today abandoned this approach long ago. They've given each fishermen a right to a share of the catch before they go out to fish. These tradeable shares, owned by the fishermen, are called Individual Transferable Quotas, or ITQs.

Fishermen don't just get a right to put their nets in the water. If the science determines there are 100 tonnes of fish available, each fisherman gets a right to catch a specific percentage of that stock, usually based on past fishing history. The season's over when they've caught their quota, unless they buy more from other quota holders. If they want to leave fish in the water to multiply, no one else can swoop in and catch them. And if they want to lease or sell their quota to someone else, they're free to do so -- something they cannot do with their licences today.

The evidence of the success of ITQs, in general, is impressive. In New Zealand, Iceland, Alaska, and elsewhere, it is hardly an exaggeration to say that the fisheries management and performance have been revolutionized. Ironically, it is Canadians like Peter Pearse and Tony Scott of UBC who pioneered this approach to fish management and have seen their ideas transform fisheries abroad, but too little at home.

ITQs end the traditional destructive "race to fish" because fishermen no longer have to beat the other fishermen to the fish; their share of the catch is guaranteed. Less money has to be spent on growing catching power, and finding ways around DFO's controls on gear. Catching your quota when and where you want means enhanced safety; fishermen can stay at home if the weather is dangerous, for example.

Fishermen get better prices for their catch. Quota holders fish when prices are high, and take more time to clean and handle the fish to enhance their value. Fishermen can earn a better living, even when catching fewer fish.

On the west coast, where quota fisheries are widespread, fishermen like them. That's doubly significant because many of those same fishermen fought their introduction tooth and nail. One reason for the change of heart is that ITQ fisheries, being profitable, have the means and the incentive to fish efficiently and can pay higher wages to productive on-boat workers.

The story is similar in Atlantic Canada, where about half of fish landed by value are caught under some form of property rights. I know of at least one Nova Scotia ITQ fishery where the fishermen volunteered to fish unallocated quota and use the money to finance more and better science so they could better understand the fish stocks in which they now have a direct and quantifiable interest.

What ITQ fisheries we have in Canada have improved conservation, profitability, safety, and fishermen's incomes while getting the industry to shoulder the costs of its own science and policing. And now fishermen increasingly police each other, because someone overfishing their quota is now stealing from his neighbour's quota. There is no third party surveillance system more powerful than this. These are all huge victories.

But the extension of the quota system to new fisheries in Atlantic Canada has slowed because reform lacks a champion willing to tackle inertia and vested interests. A government wanting to change the culture of Atlantic coastal communities for the better could do a lot worse than putting the fishery on a businesslike basis with ITQs. Add a dollop of EI reform and the east coast fishery would be transformed from subsidy sinkhole to a source of prosperity for Canada and for coastal communities themselves.