Op-ed: Catch Shares Enable Wealthy Landlords to Gobble Up Local Fisheries | Civil Eats

Op-ed: Catch Shares Enable Wealthy Landlords to Gobble Up Local Fisheries

As a fifth-generation fisherman in Mississippi, I’ve experienced firsthand how rights-based policies turn fisheries into investments and push out small fishermen.

SAN FRANCISCO - OCTOBER 17: Fresh Red Snapper lies on ice at the San Francisco Fish Company October 17, 2006 in San Francisco, California. A study by the Institute of Medicine found that eating fresh seafood twice a week is healthy for your heart and may reduce the risk of heart disease. The study also says that eating fish twice a week also outweighs the risk of exposure to mercury and other dangerous contaminants. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

A recent investigative report from New Bedford Light and ProPublica has reignited public discussion over catch shares, a controversial approach to fisheries management that privatizes the rights to fish. The investigation exposed how Blue Harvest Fisheries, owned by a billionaire Dutch family, became the largest holder of commercial fishing rights in New England, benefiting from lax antitrust regulations and pilfering profits from the local fishermen who work under them.

As a commercial fisherman in Mississippi, I know these dynamics go well beyond New England. Here in the Gulf of Mexico, private equity firms and other large investors have come in and gobbled up the rights to fish, driving up the cost of fishing access and making it prohibitively expensive for fishermen like me to harvest fish in our own backyards.

It used to be that commercial fisheries in the U.S. were all managed as a public resource. Under this public commons approach, participation is open access, meaning any fisherman with a commercial fishing permit can join in. To protect fish populations, managers use tactics that differ by species and region—they might include caps on how much fishing can occur seasonally and annually, limits on gear and boat size, or times when fishing is prohibited. Today, many fisheries are still successfully managed this way, including lobster in the Atlantic and triggerfish, king mackerel, and several species of snapper in the Gulf.

“Across the board, speculation and market forces have made the rights to participate in catch share fisheries more expensive, and also more exclusive.”

But starting in the 1990s, catch shares began to take hold in more and more fisheries across the country, such as red snapper, grouper, and tilefish here in the Gulf. Under catch share systems, regulators determine how much of each species can be caught. They then divide up the rights to fish among individual fishermen and companies who then privately own them. Initially, the rights are assigned to those who have a proven track record of fishing for the given species. In almost all cases, those who have historically caught the most are gifted more of these rights.

However, a feature of all U.S. catch share programs to date is that these rights can subsequently be traded, bought, sold, and leased like private property in open markets. Some catch share programs have more regulations than others, but across the board, speculation and market forces have made the rights to participate in these fisheries more expensive, and also more exclusive.

This catch share approach differs from previous management strategies because it turns the right to fish into a tradeable economic asset. In fact, in many cases the rights to fish are worth more than the fish itself. Increasingly, catch share fisheries look like private markets, similar to what we see playing out in housing, farmland, and other sectors that have been taken over by private equity.

Companies like Blue Harvest, which is backed by a multi-billion dollar private equity firm called Bregal Partners, buy and lease large quantities of fishing rights, in addition to acquiring fishing vessels and processing operations. Acting like Wall Street landlords, they build wealth off the backs of hardworking fishermen, while we risk our lives in one of the world’s most dangerous occupations.

My family has been in Mississippi seafood for five generations. My grandfather used to be able to move between opportunities on the water and harvest multiple species throughout the year. Opportunistic fishing allowed small-scale fishermen like him to weather seasons and other fluctuations. Today, two of Mississippi’s historically important fisheries, shrimp and oysters, are languishing due to cheap imports, factory shrimp farms, and environmental degradation. But many independent fishermen who rely on shrimp and oysters can’t raise the capital needed to pivot and access other big local fisheries, such as red snapper and grouper, which are now regulated by catch shares. Their ability to adapt has been taken away.

Before 2007, when a catch share system was implemented in the Gulf for red snapper, I could catch 200 pounds a day, fetch $5 a pound, and call it a good day. Now, the cost of leasing the rights to go fishing is so high that most independent fishermen are making just $2 a pound after that expense—and that has to pay for our fuel, crew, and other supplies. This formula leaves many of us in the red before we even reach the dock.

“To be a good fisherman, you must be a true steward of the ocean (not to mention a jack of all trades who’s able to keep your boat afloat!). But to keep up in today’s catch share fisheries, you don’t have to be a fisherman at all—you just have to be a financier.”

This is why the family heritage fishing businesses that make up so much of this country’s fishing industry are in jeopardy of being replaced by “Big Box Boats.” For many deckhands, dreams of one day being captain of their own boat have been squashed. Instead, “armchair fishermen”—people who own the rights to fish and rent them to those who do the work—have hijacked fisheries.

Big shareholders boast at council meetings and in the media of expecting 10 percent returns on their investments year after year. To be a good fisherman, you must be a true steward of the ocean (not to mention a jack of all trades who’s able to keep your boat afloat!). But to keep up in today’s catch share fisheries, you don’t have to be a fisherman at all—you just have to be a financier.

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Catch share proponents will claim that, economic and social impacts aside, rights-based programs are an effective tool to combat overfishing. But catch shares haven’t quite lived up to their ecological promises. Scant data have shown little, if any, correlation between catch share policy and sustained healthy fish stocks over time, at least no more than caps on catch could have done without all the private market tools.

In New England, where it has been more than a decade since catch shares were assigned for cod and other groundfish, cod populations are still perilously low. Similarly, more than a decade after catch shares were implemented for grouper in the Gulf, managers have had to substantially restrict commercial fishing for red grouper this year, in response to crashing stocks.

Moreover, the market speculation that catch shares spur adds new ecological pressures. Here in the Gulf, the biggest players have built powerful fleets that target fish out of a handful of ports, depleting fish stocks in a few areas over short periods of time, rather than distributing fishing pressure more widely. These high-volume operations target the bulk of the most lucrative fish, and make sure they meet their quotas no matter the means. Meanwhile, small-scale fishermen tend to harvest a higher diversity of fish, including underutilized species, which experience much less fishing pressure.

Historically, one of the biggest advocates of catch shares is a nonprofit called the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), with support from the billionaire family behind Walmart, through the Walton Family Foundation. When catch shares were first introduced in the Gulf, EDF supported those who received the biggest initial shares from the new program through funding and partnerships. Many of those fishermen then supported the conversion of more fisheries, which eventually led to most of the nation’s federal fisheries becoming catch share programs.

Compared to small-scale fishermen, these big shareholders who were backed by monied interests had more resources to attend and influence fishery management meetings, and they’ve become bolder in asserting their control while their early advantage compounds present-day gains. Recently, it’s come to our attention that a fellow Gulf fisherman, while surrounded by nearly a dozen other commercial fishermen, was threatened by a high-profile shareholder for speaking out against the catch share system. He and anyone he led to the podium at council meetings that criticized catch share programs, he was told, would be cut off from accessing fishing rights. Such intimidation tactics expose the dark underbelly of catch share schemes.

This consolidation of power and control will only worsen if nothing is done. In the first half of 2021, private equity firms accounted for 34 percent of mergers and acquisitions in the commercial fishing industry, nearly double the 2017 percentage. In other countries with catch share management, such as New Zealand, Australia, and Iceland, disruptive effects such as the economic collapse of communities, lost cultural connections to seafood, and a dearth of young fishers willing to take to the sea have been documented among small-scale fishermen, Indigenous communities, and other coastal communities.

“Fishermen, not billionaire investors, should have priority access to the rights to fish in our own communities. Those who buy and trade fishing rights should be directly and actively involved in commercial fishing.”

I’ve heard managers say that if they had known about the problems with catch share programs earlier, they would have done things differently. But since the early 1990s, independent fishermen and environmental groups such as Greenpeace publicly warned that privatization schemes like these would industrialize the ocean, eliminate the future of community-based fishing, and decimate fish stocks. Their activism even led to the establishment of a temporary moratorium on catch share programs in the 1996 reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Act, the primary law governing marine fisheries management in the U.S.

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Today, following in the path, we have assembled a coalition of fishermen who are calling for change. In May, a dozen other fishermen and I traveled to Capitol Hill to meet with legislators and explain our belief that fishermen, not billionaire investors, should have priority access to the rights to fish in our own communities. Those who buy and trade fishing rights should be directly and actively involved in commercial fishing. There should be limits to the amount of fishing rights a single entity can control. And as more commercial fishermen exit the industry, and we face a graying of our fleets, we should ensure that new generations of independent, small-scale fishermen are able to access rights to fish.

More than ever, coastal communities and working waterfronts need the backing of leaders, local and global, who are willing to challenge predatory behaviors. We call on Congress to place an immediate moratorium on future catch share programs, coupled with other safeguards, like restricting fishing rights to boat owners and operators, to ensure existing programs do not further exacerbate the inequities and ecological damage we see playing out in the Gulf, New England, and beyond. Any fair management scheme must be created from the bottom-up, with meaningful collaboration between fishermen, scientists, and managers.

It’s past time to heed the call of community-based fishermen, rather than Wall Street speculators. We are best situated to steward our local fisheries. And the biggest loser in these schemes is the American public, who pays artificially high prices for fish managed under catch share programs. Most of these fish should be at least $1-2 per pound cheaper, but the cost of catch shares must be passed on to the consumer.

Captain Ryan Bradley is a fifth-generation commercial fisherman and leader of Mississippi Commercial Fisheries United, made up of more than 250 commercial fishermen and others in Mississippi’s seafood industry. Read more >

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  1. Muddog
    Well said. Sadly, this is destruction by design. No one one should own the fish.

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