Catch shares lead to consolidation of Alaskan fisheries

recent study documenting consolidation and specialization in Alaska’s fisheries over the past three decades illustrates a broader trend taking hold in coastal communities across the country. Catch share programs, a new fisheries management system, are turning fishing rights into tradable commodities, driving up the cost to fish and consolidating fishing rights into the hands of a few wealthy owners. For instance, in Alaska’s Bering Sea crab fishery, just four companies own 77 percent of the rights to fish a single crab species.

“The degree to which catch shares have transformed the industry cannot go understated,” says Brett Tolley, a fisherman and National Program Coordinator for the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance. “We’ve had regulatory changes over the years but never have we seen such a skyrocketing change in the price of accessing the fishery.”

For Alaska, catch shares have driven job lossessuppressed crew wages, and created barriers to entry for smaller, rural, and young fishermen. These changes are happening despite the fact that Alaska’s halibut and sablefish fisheries have some of the strongest safeguards to prevent consolidation of any catch share program in the United States.

Catch share programs are supported by a coalition of free-market and environmental organizations as a market-based solution to prevent overfishing. Catch shares cap the total volume of annual seafood harvests and grant fishermen rights to a specific portion of that year’s catch based on each fisherman’s historic catch volumes. Proponents argue that catch shares create incentives for fishermen to improve fish stocks and remove incentives to “race-to-fish” that occur when fisheries set annual catch limits and fishermen race to catch more fish than their competitors before that limit is reached.

When a fishery switches to catch share management, existing fishermen are granted shares, sometimes for free, which they can then sell and trade. These rights become incredibly valuable as they’re traded, generating a gigantic windfall for these incumbent fishermen and drawing corporate investment. In some places, this creates a class of fishery landlords, who own quotas but do not fish themselves and instead lease out their fishing rights. In one Canadian halibut fishery, nearly 80 percent of quota owners leased their rights rather than fish themselves.

Those without quotas end up paying out the gills to lease them. In Alaska’s Bering Sea crab fishery, for instance, as much as 80 percent of crab fishermen’s revenue can go to pay quota owners for the mere right to fish.

“Catch shares have created this entirely new overhead that was never there before,” says Tolley. “I hear all over [about] fishermen who are … paying more to lease than they are earning when they hit the docks.”

These new costs squeeze fishing crews and drive many out of business. For instance, the share of vessel revenue that Bristol Bay crab crews receive fell by half after the fishery switched to a catch share program. The fishery fleet also shrunk over 70 percent in the first year of the program, wiping out nearly 1,000 crew jobs.

The smallest fishermen are the first to get priced out of a catch share system. A study published last month documents consolidation in Alaska’s halibut and sablefish fishery, which currently has half as many quota owners as when catch share began in 1995. Compared to others across the country, this fishery adopted several safeguards to protect owner-operated vessels, like limiting the total amount of quota that one entity can own and restricting corporate quota ownership. When a loophole allowed absentee owners to effectively lease quota by “hiring a skipper,” the fishery added a stronger “boots on deck” provision that requires quota owners to be on board for harvest. 

While these measures prevented some of the drastic levels of consolidation and corporate ownership seen in other catch share programs, rising costs have still shut out marginalized fishermen, particularly rural, small-scale, and indigenous fishers. “Quota has been sold out of small, rural communities or quota holders from small rural communities have moved,” wrote Linda Behnken, Executive Director of the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association, in an e-mail to Food & Power. “There is less participation in the fisheries from residents of these rural communities than historically.”

Costly catch shares also create a barrier to entry for younger fishermen. A study of Alaska’s aging fishing fleet found that the “high cost of fishing rights … [creates] seemingly impassable barriers to entry for new and young fishermen.” Add this new prohibitive overhead to a host of social barriers pushing youth away from fishing, and we see that Alaskan residents under 40 only hold 17 percent of fishing permits today, down from 38 percent in 1980. “The cost of entry to the catch share fisheries has become a significant obstacle for young fishermen,” said Behnken.

To increase fishing access for small, rural, and young fishermen, one report suggests that Alaska adopt more “non-market forms of access.” This could include a limited number of free quotas for fishing community residents, as seen in Iceland, open-access fisheries for small-scale vessels, as seen in Norway to protect access for the Indigenous Sámi population, or student licenses for young fishermen, as seen in Maine’s lobster fishery.

Claire Kelloway, a reporter and policy analyst with the Open Markets Institute, runs the Food & Power site, where this story was first published.