How are fishing quotas set?

By: Charles W. Bryant
Busy harbor
With harbors like this one in Alaska, it's no wonder many U.S. waters are overfished.
David Sanger/Getty Images

Fishing may be a recreational sport for some, but it's a livelihood for many others. Commercial fisheries all over the world hit the seas in search of large hauls of fish and shellfish -- so much so that many of the world's ocean waters are overfished. Many species of fish are in grave danger because of a long unregulated history and then sluggish legislation to curb overfishing. Scientists all over the world study the mating, breeding and travel patterns of fish species in order to give useful data to the government bodies that regulate the commercial industry. It's called fish management. Every fish in every body of water on Earth is regulated. There are limits put in place in a wide range of areas including the following:

  • Size of the fish you can keep
  • Total number or pounds you can keep
  • Total number of fish you can keep
  • Time period that it's legal to fish
  • Fishing methods
  • Fishing equipment

These regulations are put in place to make sure no species is overfished. Overfishing leads to a depleted stock and even the threat of extinction, and it's a hot button issue in the commercial fishing industry. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) states that in 2007, more than 9.2 billion pounds of fish were taken from American waters. That's 4.2 million metric tons with a value of more than $4.1 billion. Scientists have data that shows that many species of fish are dwindling and that the ocean's ecosystem is in trouble. But the scientists aren't the ones in charge of setting the regulations. They can only submit their studies and data to the decision makers -- politicians.


­This has presented somewhat of a problem because the governing bodies often ignore the advice of scientists in favor of commerce. With $4.1 billion in revenue, setting regulations and catch limits is a delicate balancing act between environmental concern and a profitable industry. The limits that are set for commercial fisheries are called individual fishing quotas, or IFQs. These are generally represented in quota shares. Each share represents a percentage of the total allowable catch for the species and region, called a fishery. Many times the quota share for a particular vessel will be based on the catch from the previous year. In some markets the quota shares can be bought and sold from vessel to vessel. This means it may be worth it for the tiny SS Minnow to sell its shares to the SS Behemoth and never leave the dock. The SS Minnow is actually making money by not fishing. That may sound strange, but it's only the beginning of the mysterious and controversial world of fishing quotas.


Commercial Fish Management

Imported fish is processed at Grimsby Fish Docks in northern England.
Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Before 1976, commercial fishing in­ the United States was pretty much a free-for-all. The result of this bonanza was that some areas of the ocean were overfished. Enter the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA). One of the things the law established was exclusive fishing rights for a 200-mile (321,686-meter) zone around the United States border, to be managed by the U.S. government. That's a big area, so another thing the MSA set up were eight separate regional councils. These councils wrote management plans for their zones with the aid of data from the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). Each year, annual quotas are set for each fish species based on a stock assessment and fishery evaluation. When each quota is reached, the fishery is done for the season.

­The MSA has been changed a couple of times since 1976. The first time was in 1996 with the addition of the Sustainable Fisheries Act (SFA). The SFA sought to strengthen the original act by strengthening catch-and-release programs, developing lesser used fisheries, better protecting fish habitats and reducing bycatch. Bycatch is species of fish that get caught up in the net even though the vessel isn't permitted to catch that particular kind. The success of the SFA was challenged by marine ecologists after a five year study in 2001 concluded that most fisheries were virtually unaffected by the act. A lack of oversight and government red tape is usually blamed for the lack of enforcement.


After the criticism of the SFA's effectiveness and subsequent findings concerning the depleted stocks of certain fish species, the U.S. government acted again with the MSA Reauthorization Act of 2006. This act was tied to President George Bush's Ocean Action Plan and has four main objectives:

  • A firm deadline for overfishing in U.S. waters by 2011
  • Twice as many fishing quota share systems to be put in place by 2010
  • Tougher laws regarding quotas, adding revocation as a penalty for offenders
  • Creation of programs to improve the quality of information used by fishery managers

Whether the Reauthorization Act meets a similar fate as the SFA remains to be seen.


The Fishing Quota

Fishing boats
Two fishing boats in the Philippines.
Angelo Cavalli/Getty Images

Nearly 40 percent of United States fisheries are overfished -- 10 perce­nt more than the rest of the world [source: Slater]. There are 959 fisheries in the U.S. and more than half of them don't have enough data to know what their status is. Marine scientists return valuable information about what species are in trouble, but it's translating these findings to the policy side of the issue that remains difficult. It's also the reason that quotas have been slow to come around.

Within the eight regional fish management councils in the United States are hundreds of local governing bodies that help to set the quotas for their region. We'll use the heavily fished Eastern seaboard of the United States as an example. The Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council (MAFMC) is the governing body. It's made up of 25 representatives from seven states along the Mid-Atlantic shore. Add to this the Northeast Regional Office (NERO) that governs the waters of Long Island. Each of those seven states also has management subgroups, on the state and county levels. The counties set limits for recreational fishermen. Commercial quotas are debated and set by the larger regional councils -- in this case, the MAFMC.


The information the MAFMC uses to set the quotas is culled from stock assessments and evaluations carried out by the scientific wing of NERO. Fish populations are studied either annually or twice a year and turned in for scientific review by a third party. These assessments are then published, and the quotas are set. The evaluation and stock assessments remain somewhat of a mystery, which is one of the reasons that environmental groups are often at odds with politicians over the quota setting process.

The MAFMC is only one example, but governments all over the world use similar techniques and processes to determine if an area is overfished and what they're going to do about it.

There are also studies conducted to determine which fishing techniques have a negative environmental impact. There's concern among groups like the Joint Ocean Commission and Greenpeace that politicians fail to heed the advice of the scientists and set quotas that favor the fishing industry. President Bush pushed a midnight regulation toward the end of his tenure that leaves the environmental review process up to the regional management councils and out of the hands of the non-partisan National Marine Fisheries Service. That means a scenario where the fishing industry is responsible for its own environmental oversight.

In November 2008 San Diego, Calif., established a sweeping quota program that covers dozens of fish species. This is one of the first steps for working toward more fishing quotas in U.S. waters. President-elect Barack Obama is being urged to help to reform how these quotas are set. Without quotas, commercial fishing vessels race to catch the most fish the fastest when the season opens. Working fast means mistakes are made. This leads to wasted fish and dangerous working conditions. Quotas slow up the pace because each vessel is allotted a specific amount they can haul in. This leads to safer and more environmentally sound techniques while helping to reduce bycatch.

Those who argue against fishing quotas say they make it difficult for smaller fishing operations and virtually impossible for a new fleet to get in on the action. Larger commercial fishing businesses are often some of the only ones that are allowed to work. This leads to a concentration of wealth, monopolization of the industry as a whole, and smaller vessels get left without work. There's also concern that a lack of oversight could lead fishermen to throw back lower-quality fish in order to maximize the financial take for a quota share.


Lots More Information

Related­ HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

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