Don't bite on risky lure of 'catch shares'

By Wayne Mershon

A wolf in sheep’s clothing: something that seems to be good, but is actually not good at all.

I can’t think of a more appropriate saying to use than “a wolf in sheep’s clothing” to describe the reality of what the Seafood Harvesters of America want to do with our offshore fisheries.

The Post & Courier recently published an article and editorial that bought into the sheep’s clothing side. Year-round fishing and better fisheries data are touted.

Who could be against that?

But there’s a wolf: privatization of our fisheries through a scheme called “catch shares,” where fishermen and corporations are actually given ownership of our fisheries with shares that can be bought or sold like stock on Wall Street.

That’s the real reason for the Seafood Harvesters of America’s existence. They’re working hard to ensure commercial fishermen own our fisheries, and in this case it’s our snapper and grouper, starting with a pilot program that could be considered by the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council and NOAA Fisheries next year.

The term “catch shares” does not appear in the article or editorial, but the innocuous sounding synonym “individual quotas” does. The Seafood Harvesters have been well coached by their public relations team to not use “catch shares” because it will draw intense fire from most commercial and recreational fishermen.

Last year, when the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council sought input on its long-range management plan for the snapper-grouper fishery, 97 percent of the responding stakeholders said they opposed catch shares.

It’s no wonder.

Studies by the Lenfest Ocean Program, Food and Water Watch and others have shown that catch share programs provide no biological benefit or enhanced sustainability to fisheries at all. Year-round fisheries are rarely achieved. What catch shares do is destroy jobs and hurt fishing communities.

With catch shares, the initial ownership allocation in a fishery, based on catch history, leaves many fishermen without enough shares to continue fishing, so they have no choice but to buy more shares or rent them from those that got the most, usually with borrowed money.

The result is far less fishermen.

A 2013 report from the Center for Investigative Reporting estimated that nationally more than 3,700 vessels were no longer active in fishing areas that operated under catch shares, accounting for as many as 18,000 lost jobs.

Perhaps there is no greater example of the economic devastation of catch shares than the commercial red snapper fishery in the Gulf of Mexico. An investigative report this year by AL.com says that catch shares have turned red snapper fishermen into two classes: “sea lords“ and “serfs.”

From the report: “just 55 people own the right to catch fully 77 percent of all the snapper in the Gulf, a haul worth $18 million annually…the remaining 25 percent of the harvest, a little over 1 million pounds, is split among about 500 people, which means there are a lot of very small shares. And a lot of fishermen who must buy the right to fish.” According to the report, the sea lords have earned about $60 million since 2007 from serfs buying the right to fish for red snapper.

As innocuous as they want to make it sound, make no mistake, the Seafood Harvesters represent the sea lords and are working hard to privatize ownership of our fisheries to the detriment of fishing jobs and fishing communities.

Beware of the wolf in sheep’s clothing.

Mershon is president of the Council for Sustainable Fishing, a non-profit advocacy group for commercial and recreational fishing based in Murrells Inlet.

Click here for the op-ed as published in the Charleston Post & Courier.

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