New system could help avert collapse of fisheries

CHICAGO (Reuters) - Guaranteeing individual fishermen a share of the catch could help avert a global collapse of fisheries, U.S. researchers said on Thursday.

CHICAGO (Reuters) - Guaranteeing individual fishermen a share of the catch could help avert a global collapse of fisheries, U.S. researchers said on Thursday.

Such programs, known as catch-shares, eliminate the frantic race to get the biggest share of the catch as in traditional open-access fishing, a system that promotes overfishing and habitat destruction, putting a key global food supply at risk.

"Under open access, you have a free-for-all race to fish, which ultimately leads to collapse," said Christopher Costello of the University of California, Santa Barbara, whose study appears in the journal Science.

"But when you allocate shares of the catch, then there is an incentive to protect the stock, which reduces collapse. We saw this across the globe," he said in a statement.

Costello said the study offered hope that fisheries can resist the widespread collapse projected two years ago by Canadian Boris Worm of Dalhousie University in Halifax.

Climate change and pollution compound the threat to global fisheries, which supply protein to 2.6 billion people worldwide.

Costello and colleagues studied 50 years of data from 11,000 fisheries around the world.

"What we found is a management system called catch shares reverses the global trend in fishery failures," he said in a telephone briefing.

Catch shares, which are common in New Zealand, Australia, Iceland, and increasingly the United States and Canada, grant each shareholder a fixed portion of a fishery's total allowable catch, a figure set by scientists each year.

These shares may be bought and sold, much like shares in a company. They increase in value as the overall fish population increases in size, giving each shareholder a stake in improving the overall health of the fishery.

"Fisheries managed by this approach are dramatically less likely to collapse," Costello said.

Costello said only about 1 percent of global fisheries have adopted this new management system, but those that have are half as likely to collapse as those using traditional management systems.

"We found that fish fare far better when people directly benefit from taking just the right number of fish from the water," said Steven Gaines of UCSB, who worked on the study.

"Fish populations rebound, and so do yields from the fisheries," Gaines told reporters.

He pointed to the Alaskan halibut fishery as an example of success. Before the switch to a catch share system in 1995, the only way to control the overall catch was to shrink the total season, which went from four months to just two to three days.

This forced Halibut fishermen to use dangerous fishing methods, loading down their boats with frozen fish and compromising the quality of their catch.

Now, the season lasts nearly eight months, and because they can properly store and manage the fish they catch, they can charge more for it.

"Halibut fishermen were barely squeaking by, but now the fishery is insanely profitable," Gaines said.

(Editing by Maggie Fox and Ross Colvin)