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Key Questions


What Do People Want to Know about the Effects of Catch Shares?

In the first phase of the Measuring the Effects of Catch Shares Project, we conducted workshops and meetings with stakeholders, scientists, and managers to identify the main questions and concerns that people have about how catch share programs affect fish stocks, fishermen, fishing businesses, and fishing communities.

We distilled those questions and concerns into the following set of Key Questions. The Key Questions consider changes that may happen after implementation of the catch share program compared to a baseline period prior to the catch share program. The Key Questions are the focus of the project’s data analysis and reporting. The fourteen ecological, economic, social, and administrative indicators reported in the West Coast results and Northeast results are designed to provide the best available, objective information needed to answer the Key Questions.

Click on the boxes below for overviews and links to West Coast and Northeast results.


Has the status of fish stocks changed?

West Coast Results | Northeast Results

As indicators of fish stock status, we analyze changes in biomass and fishing mortality. Biomass is the total weight or volume of a fish species in a given area. Fishing mortality is the rate of removal of fish from a population by fishing.

Typically when catch share programs are implemented a major goal is to improve the status of the fish stock. This would mean that biomass is high enough to support high productivity, and catch rates are within levels that maximize catches over the long term.

The government conducts fish stock assessments at regular intervals to determine biomass and fishing mortality. Those publicly funded datasets are required to be released in public reports or in response to data requests. We analyze and report on the data as soon as they become available.

It is important to remember that responses in stock biomass to changes in management or other factors take considerable time to realize. The response time varies from species to species based on generation time. Moreover, any actual response may be partially or entirely masked by other factors, such as environmental conditions and predation. Properly identifying relevant trends may require many years of data beyond the five-year duration of this project.

Have fleetwide catches stayed within quotas?

West Coast Results | Northeast Results

Because catch shares offer fishermen more flexibility about when to fish for their quota, fishery managers generally expect that a catch share program will enable the fishery to get better at staying within catch limits. Fishermen should be better able to target stocks for which they have high quotas, for example, while avoiding those with low quotas. This Key Question considers whether catch overages occur less frequently and are less pronounced after implementation of catch shares.

The indicator shows the amount of fish that was caught compared to the total catch limit that was set by the fishery management council. The indicator reveals whether the fishery under a catch share program tends to stay within catch limits better than it did under the previous management system. In our reports, we show the average percentage of the catch limit that was caught across all stocks, along with the proportions of stocks with major underages (catch less than half of catch limit), overages (catch greater than catch limit), or major overages (catch more than 10% higher than catch limit).

Has quality of fishery data changed with changes in observer coverage?

West Coast Results | Northeast Results

This Key Question considers that sustainable fishery management depends in part on good-quality data on catches and that catch share programs often require onboard, third-party observers to record data, which has been shown to improve data quality. Onboard observers are trained to provide high-quality, objective data on discards, fish biology (length, age, maturity), and species identifications of catches.

The indicator shows the percentage of catches observed by third-party individuals on fishing vessels. We report on the percentage of the total catch that is covered by observers before and after the catch share programs were implemented, relying on base data from regional fishery observer programs.

This indicator is a good proxy for the quality of the data being provided to fishery managers. The accuracy of the indicator may be affected by alterations in fishing behavior, which has been reported to change when an observer is on board.

Have discarding practices changed?

West Coast Results | Northeast Results

This Key Question considers that some catch share programs limit the amount of fish that can be brought back to shore, while others consider discards as part of the total catch share. Either case may create incentives to discard fish that exceed the catch share or to retain only those fish of a given species that are most valuable (“high-grading”). Some programs offer the ability to lease catch shares or join risk pools to cover overages, which may reduce discarding. Many discarded fish die as a result of the physiological stress of being caught or from handling damage during the fishing process, so that discards are considered both economically wasteful and ecologically harmful.

The indicator shows for each species the fraction of caught fish that were discarded. We use data collected by fisheries observers and analyze the ratio of discarded weight to total catch weight. This is called the annual discard fraction, which is compared before and after the catch share program was implemented. Available data provide a good measure of the amount of discarding. However, in fisheries where observers do not cover the entire fleet (as in the Northeast), the estimated discard fractions is more uncertain, and the data may be biased if fishermen change their fishing behavior when an observer is on board.

Has fishing effort changed in amount, timing, or where it occurs?

West Coast Overview | Northeast Overview

This Key Question considers that catch share fisheries change both the composition of the fleet and the incentives under which the fleet operates. These changes might be expected to alter how much, when, and where the fleet fishes. In turn, the magnitude of changes in fishing effort may influence the impact of fishing on habitat, on fishing communities, and on financial viability of the fishery.

We are developing an indicator of the amount of time that the fleet spends fishing in different locations. Collaborative investigations with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) staff in the Fishery Resource Analysis and Monitoring Division of the Northwest Fisheries Science Center are probing this question. In the Northeast, logbook and VMS effort data are valuable resources. In addition, fishery logbook data from individual states could be useful to measure the total amount of expended effort, overall timing of effort, and any changes in the geographic distribution of effort with the advent of catch shares. Interpretation of changes in effort will be difficult, and these data are not always completely reliable.

Have fishing impacts on seafloor habitats changed?

West Coast Results (not yet available) | Northeast Results (not yet available)

This Key Question considers that some fishing activities damage seafloor habitats, which may affect fish and invertebrate populations, and the broader ecosystem. If fishing activity changes after a catch share program is launched, the fishery’s impacts on seafloor habitats may also change. Seafloor habitats vary in how vulnerable they are to damage by fishing gear. Deep-water coral habitats in the Northeast, for example, are damaged more easily than muddy bottom habitats.

Seafloor habitats also differ in their importance for fish and invertebrate species. The overall harm to habitats and their associated marine life will depend on the relative changes in fishing across different habitat types. In addition, if fishermen decide to switch from a more-harmful to a less-harmful fishing gear, or to trawl more or less frequently, this would also change the impacts of fishing on seafloor habitats. We are developing indicators that estimate changes in fishing impacts on seafloor habitats. The analysis will require combining fishing locations with available mapping of seafloor habitats to estimate the total effort expended by each type of fishing gear on each type of seafloor habitat. Data at sufficiently fine resolution are difficult to obtain, given confidentiality requirements of government datasets. Information on vulnerability of habitats (from available mapping) may also be limited.


Has the financial viability of the fishery changed?

West Coast Results | Northeast Results

This Key Question considers that economists generally anticipate that transferability of catch shares among fishermen will lead to increases in the overall profitability and economic efficiency of the fishing sector. This could occur if the more-efficient fishermen buy additional catch shares from the less-profitable fishing firms. The departure of less-efficient vessels from the fishery and the ability of remaining fishermen to take advantage of economies of scale in production may lead to a decrease in average per-unit harvesting costs.

We currently report on two indicators of financial viability: landings and revenues. Other indicators may be added in future reports.

It is important to note that any changes that are observed in financial viability cannot be attributed solely to the catch share program. They reflect many different factors, ranging from fuel prices and weather conditions to annual catch limits and other changes in fishery management such as area closures. In addition, changes in financial viability may differ within the fleet depending on vessel length, homeport, and other factors.

Has the number of active vessels in the fishery changed?

West Coast Results | Northeast Results

This Key Question considers that implementation of a catch share program may cause a reduction in the size of the fleet, as some vessel owners sell or lease their catch shares and exit the fishery. This consolidation has important socioeconomic implications. The departure of less-efficient vessels from the fishery is expected to lead to a decrease in overall costs of harvesting and a consequent increase in the overall profitability of the harvesting sector (see previous Key Question). However, the decrease in fleet size may have an effect on the economic and social wellbeing of coastal communities and their residents (see Social Key Question below).

The indicator shows the number of fishing boats that actively participate in the catch share fishery. “Actively” is clearly defined in the reports and differs by the context of each fishery. For example, it may be defined as landing groundfish on at least one trip during the year.

It is not always possible to reliably identify the cause for a change in fleet size. Other factors besides the consolidation expected under the catch share program may be responsible. For example, increases in fuel prices and other costs external to the catch share program may reduce profitability and cause some fishermen to cease active participation. In addition to consolidation and profitability, personal reasons such as health issues or retirement may trigger exit.

Have opportunities or barriers to entering the fishery changed?

West Coast Results | Northeast Results

This Key Question considers that the establishment of catch shares can create new opportunities for and obstacles to participation in the fishery. Stakeholders have expressed concern that catch shares will lead to reduced diversity in the fleet, redistribution of wealth among fishery participants, and changes in the concentration of fishing privileges among ports or regions.

In addition to fishing their catch shares, owner of catch shares may be able to benefit from their shares in other ways, such as by leasing them or using them as collateral for obtaining business loans. However, the catch share system may also inhibit new people from entering the fishery. They may find entry into the fishery to be more difficult than in the past, if large amounts of money are needed to obtain catch shares.

To help answer this Key Question, we provide indicators of access to and exclusion from catch shares and fishing opportunities, and of how evenly catch shares are spread among the fleet. Information on access to and exclusion from catch shares provides insight into how the costs and benefits of the catch share program are distributed within society. Data analysis for this indicator may be constrained by the complexity and lack of transparency of catch share transactions.

Are fishing vessels participating in a different mix of fisheries?

West Coast Results | Northeast Results

This Key Question considers that participation by fishing vessels in a number of different fisheries is a common occurrence that may change after a catch share program has been implemented. The diversity of fisheries, or fishing portfolio, that a vessel pursues may affect its own revenues and those of other vessels. For example, as a result of the increased flexibility in fishing season brought by the catch share program, fishermen may time their catch share trips to allow for greater participation in other fisheries. It also may be the case that some fishermen feel it is more profitable to lease out their catch share allocation and shift their effort toward other fisheries. While switching from one fishery to another is not without costs, the financial viability of vessels that diversify their fishing operations may improve. However, the non-catch share fisheries into which those vessels expand their fishing effort may experience “spillover effects” such as increased competition and congestion.

The indicators display the degree to which catch share fishery vessels also participate in other fisheries through examining landings and revenue from a mix of fisheries. An array of measurements is used to examine the extent and nature of fishery diversification. Examples include the number of active vessels with limited entry trawl permits in non-groundfish fisheries, the ratio of catch share gross revenue and effort to non-catch share gross revenue and effort, and single catch share species gross revenue and effort as a percent of total catch share gross revenue and effort.

This indicator encompasses both the positive effects for vessel owners of more flexibility to participate in non-catch share fisheries and the potential negative effects of this influx of activity on those fisheries. A potential limitation is the absence of data on the level of participation of vessels in various fisheries during a given year.

Has the cost of fishery management to the private sector changed?

West Coast Results | Northeast Results

This Key Question considers that the fishing industry is likely to incur additional costs in order to comply with catch share regulations. Compliance costs related to the catch share program may a reason for vessels exiting the fishery, especially for smaller-scale fishing businesses. The costs may include mandatory on-board observer coverage and other monitoring costs, and a cost-recovery fee on fishermen to pay for administrative and enforcement costs of the fishery management program. These additional costs may be distributed unevenly across segments of the fishing and processing sectors. For example, at-sea monitoring fees paid on a daily basis place a disproportionate adverse economic burden on smaller-scale fishing businesses because small vessels harvest fewer fish per day than large vessels and thus incur higher observer cost per landed pound.

We report on changes in how much money the fishing industry spends to comply with catch share program regulations, such as at-sea and dockside monitoring costs and cost-recovery fees as a percentage of average gross revenue.

See also: Has the public cost of fishery management changed?


Have social and economic effects on local communities changed?

This Key Question considers that when fishery managers implement a catch share program it may have a number of economic and social effects on the people who live and work in fishing ports and other towns and cities. We report on six indicators of these changes:

  • Landings and Revenues by State and Port Group
  • Vessel Activity by State and Port Group
  • Crew Employment and Compensation
  • Fishing Support Service Employment
  • Seafood Processor Employment
  • Fishing Vessel and Crew Safety

Together these elements describe fishery-related changes that affect the economic and social life of communities. The effects may vary from state to state within the fishery management region and locally from community to community. For that reason, the indicators are reported when possible for each state and for ports or port groups. Ideally, the results could be reported for individual communities so that local effects could be revealed, but this is not possible under the confidentiality requirements of data provided by NOAA.

Landings and Revenues by State and Port Group

West Coast Results | Northeast Results

Gross revenues are one of the most basic measurements that can help determine if changes in fishery management are having an effect on the economy over time. It is assumed that the money gained through groundfish landings stays within the region and has a “multiplier effect” through the region, resulting in indirect economic output. At its highest level, this analysis can provide insight as to how the economics of the fishery have changed over time (See: Has the financial viability of the fishery changed?). In more detailed state and port level analyses, these data can indicate whether some communities have experienced economic growth or contraction as a result of changes in the fishery.

Vessel Activity by State and Port Group

West Coast Results | Northeast Results

Implementation of a catch share program may cause a reduction in the size of the fleet at the fishery-wide level (See: Has the number of active vessels in the fishery changed?). At the port or port group level, consolidation in the groundfish fishery has important socioeconomic implications. Although the departure of less efficient vessels from the fishery may to lead to an increase in the overall profitability of the fishery, the decrease in fleet size may have an effect on the economic and social wellbeing of some coastal communities and their residents. For example, there may be decreases in the number of crew positions available, the quantity of raw fish available to processors and buyers, and the demand for shoreside vessel support services.

It is not always possible to reliably identify the cause for a change in fleet size. Factors other than the catch share program may be responsible. For example, increases in costs for fuel, safety equipment, insurance, and moorage may also contribute to downsizing of the fleet. These factors may be idiosyncratic to individual ports, showing large community-level changes over time. In addition, personal reasons such as health issues and retirement may cause fishing vessels to leave the fishery.

Crew Employment and Compensation

West Coast Results | Northeast Results

Employment and compensation of fishing vessel crew is likely to change over time and with the implementation of catch shares. Catch share management programs may consolidate fleets and extend fishing seasons, both of which affect crew. Consolidation can change the number and homeport locations of crew positions, resulting in regional or local concentration of crew opportunities. Further, crew sometimes work for more than one catch-share owner over the course of a year and may be engaged in fishing for weeks or months more than they were prior to the catch share program. This change may result in higher income for remaining crew, but it may have a variety of social impacts on fishermen and their families. For example, it may result in more time away from home, less flexibility to pursue supplemental employment or income-producing opportunities, and a higher or lower rate of pay when considered on an hourly basis.

Data on crew are difficult to collect, as there is substantial turnover among crew over even short spans of time. Further, until recently data has not been consistently collected and much of the information is qualitative in nature, summarizing trends from interviews about very specific issues. Finally, some fishing crew work as part of an informal economy, or “off the books,” where they regularly work for cash and are not tabulated in quantified data collected by management agencies. Many of these crew members are reluctant to be surveyed or to provide information about their activities, past or present. Considering these limitations, the indicators reported here may be skewed, but they provide a summary of the quantified data that are currently available for this important stakeholder group.

Fishing Vessel and Crew Safety

West Coast Results | Northeast Results

An important potential benefit of catch share programs is that vessel safety is expected to increase. Under a catch share system, captains and vessel owners can choose when to go out to fish their quota, potentially avoiding bad weather and reducing crew fatigue. As an indicator of changes in safety, we analyze the number of fatalities reported on commercial fishing vessels per year. Analysis of incident rate per year and the types of fatality will more fully identify whether implementation of catch shares has had any effect on vessel safety. Commercial fishing-related fatalities onboard vessels are relatively well documented. However, injuries not resulting in fatalities such as acute injuries and repetitive motion injuries are not well documented unless U.S. Coast Guard assistance was required. Additionally, publicly available data are not broken down by fishery, so it may be difficult to attribute fatalities specifically to the groundfish fishery, especially because many groundfish vessels also participate in other fisheries.

Fishing Support Service Employment

West Coast Results | Northeast Results

Many shoreside businesses may be affected by implementation of catch share programs. Examples include gear hauling and storage businesses, vessel moorage businesses, marine electronics retailers, and skilled tradespeople including welders, electricians, and fiberglass repairers. For some businesses, fleet consolidation may lead to a drop in revenue, but a longer fishing season may result in more constant sales over the course of a year. Different kinds of support service businesses may experience different economic effects of catch shares.

Seafood Processor Employment

West Coast Results | Northeast Results

In addition to economic data such as wholesale value and revenue per unit of catch, seafood processing employment can be an important indicator of how a fishery is affected by a new management system. The employment patterns of fish buyers and processors may change with implementation of the catch share program. In some coastal communities, where a large proportion of the residents work as seafood processing employees, changes resulting from the catch share program could substantially affect the economic and social life of that community. For example, under a derby-style fishery, large quantities of fish could arrive at processors, requiring increased employment of short-term workers. Under a catch share management system, landings delivered to processors may be spaced out over the year, potentially resulting in fewer total numbers of employees who are employed for longer periods.


Has the public cost of fishery management changed?

West Coast Results Northeast Results

A common expectation is that although government agencies may need to spend more on implementation at the outset (because of the need for larger and more complex data systems, increased amounts of monitoring information, and tracking of shares), fishery management costs to government may decrease over time as the private sector takes on more of the management responsibility. For example, management actions such as openings and closures may become unnecessary as more operational decisions are made by catch share holders. In effect, some of the costs associated with managing the fishery would be shifted to the industry itself, instead of being paid with public funds. The analysis will demonstrate whether the amount spent by the government on management of the fishery decreases, increases, or remains the same after catch share implementation.

The indicator is an estimate of the amount of money spent by the government to develop, implement, and operate catch share programs. Metrics include the expenditure of time or money required for government to develop and carry out the management, regulatory, monitoring, reporting, and compliance components of the program. To the degree possible, we isolate the expenditures that are related directly to the catch share programs. Fishery research, stock assessment, council meetings, enforcement, and data management would be part of government costs regardless of a catch share program, but some costs specifically related to catch share programs can be identified. The analysis combines publicly available data, data requested from NOAA, and supplemental data from personal interviews. There are significant differences between catch share programs (as highlighted in program overviews for the West Coast and Northeast fisheries). Identifying catch share program costs to a specific program is possible to some extent, but some are incorporated in general government expenditures.

See also:  Has the cost of fishery management to the private sector changed?

Has the efficiency of fishery management changed?

West Coast Results | Northeast Results

This Key Question considers the expectation that catch share programs will decentralize decision-making, so that fishermen have more control over decisions about fishing. The amount of time that government spends taking actions to manage a fishery may decrease over time as fishermen (individual quota holders, coops, sectors, associations) have more flexibility to respond to conditions in the fishery. Whether this will require a concomitant increase in the amount of time the fishing industry spends on decision-making, planning, and creating and managing associations such as sectors and coops is of interest to stakeholders.

The indicator portrays change in the percent of time spent by government on managing the fishery before and during the catch share program. It uses a combination of metrics in an attempt to isolate the time spent on actions that are related directly to the catch share programs.