High and Dry

Buying Back Boats To Solve The Overfishing Crisis

In 1994, the most recent year for which figures exist, the world spent $124 billion to support a fishing industry that generated revenues of only $70 billion. In other words, we lost $54 billion in our global effort to build a fleet big enough to catch, in the words of one activist, “every last fish in the ocean.”

© Robert Visser / Greenpeace USA

Huge investments in factory fishing trawlers, like this one in Alaska's Bering Sea, keep the boats at work strip-mining the world's oceans. Can buy-backs solve the problem?

Awakening at last to the economic and environmental costs of overfishing, countries around the world recently signed a United Nations agreement to reduce their fleets by the year 2005, most likely through buy-backs (the purchasing of the boats from fishermen) or outright decommissioning (actually taking them out of service). Unfortunately, no one is really sure how to buy back fishing vessels in a way that brings fleet size in line with conservation goals. Done wrong, these transactions could destroy the livelihoods of millions of fishermen without saving a single fish.

Buy-back schemes paid for by government or industry provide cash to boat owners as an incentive to take vessels out of commission, essentially purchasing the boat from the owner. Afterwards, the retired vessels are scrapped, sunk or directed to other non-fishery related areas. “Decommissioning is the single most important element in a strategy to manage and preserve fish stocks,” says Nicholas Garrett, the director of the Aberdeen Fishing Vessel Owners Association in Scotland.

By lowering the quota of fish allowed to be caught, as well as the number of boats allowed to catch them, decommissioning hopes to create a win-win situation in which both fish stocks and fishermen recover. Paying fishermen who get out of the business for both their boats and for the fish they won't catch may help them toward future careers or retirement. And those fishermen who continue get a chance to make a decent living on the sea.

Dr. John Gates, a professor at the University of Rhode Island's Environmental and Natural Resource Economics Department, has extensively researched buy-back models and, along with many other fisheries economists, extracted some basic principles for the successful operation of a decommissioning program. Gates argues that buy-backs only work toward protecting fish stocks if fishing effort is reduced along with the vessels. Well-designed buy-backs purchase more, consequently, than just boats: They also acquire the boats' allotted quota of fish.

Gert van Santen, the senior fisheries specialist at the World Bank, also points out that if governments do not buy-back fish quotas, the remaining boats will simply increase their effort and catch the same total amount of fish. In order for economic incentives to work, say analysts such as Gates and van Santen, countries must initiate “property rights-based” management systems that allow them to buy back the lives of the fish they are trying to save. In 1986, New Zealand created the best working model for a rights-based fisheries management system by dividing their fish into Individual Transferable Quotas (ITQs). By converting a common resource like fish into property, the ITQ system works like emissions trading in which companies pay for the right to pollute a fixed quantity of the atmosphere.

With an ITQ system, boat owners can sell decommissioned vessels to a buyer who takes them outside the fishery, to waters with open access, much as European Union vessels have relocated off the coasts of Africa, where fisheries are far less stressed. Scrapping the vessel completes the cycle that begins with buy-backs. While this cycle seems clear, it does not answer the most difficult questions: who pays for decommissioning and what happens to the people who are bought out of their livelihood?

There are no easy answers, however. Most proposals for easing fishermen's transitions have centered on either retraining them through education programs or, more commonly, early retirement programs. But early retirement is often not a happy solution for fishermen who love their work. Some analysts have suggested limiting ITQs to low-yield, labor-intensive boats to keep the maximum number of people employed.

Fishermen remain wary about buy-backs and ITQs, often citing their families' many generations of employment in the industry. They also suggest, with some justification, that unless a strong management system is in place, new boats could simply take the place of decommissioned ones. And that would negate any conservation gain.

Many economists have suggested that industry fund a portion of the buy-backs, in concert with the governments that helped construct the fleets. Based on fees assessed to the remaining quota holders, the government could offset much of the public losses incurred by the overfishing crisis. Because the crisis is global in origin, it is on the radar screens of multilateral banks. Funding would not be hard to justify, considering that many multilateral banks are mandated to alleviate poverty and to protect the natural resources that support life on this planet.

The effort to decommission the world's fleet is beginning. Fishing nations and international agencies have begun to open dialogue at meetings of the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) to consider global reductions and target fleet sizes. At a meeting in Rome early in 1999, the 80 FAO member countries signed a non-binding agreement to reduce the size of their fleets over the next six years. The language is tentative at this point and the political opposition is strong, but the idea has support in the international community, and it is expected that buy-backs will be the major instrument used to control fleet size. In fact, buy-backs have already begun in the U.S. During the summer of 1998, U.S. Senator Ted Stevens (R-AK) was able to attach a rider to the budget bill authorizing $100 million for the decommissioning of vessels in the Alaskan pollock fishery.

This process, beginning along the Alaskan coast, will likely be a painful one for many fishermen and their families, but it will also ensure that someday their descendants may revive their craft. The oceans' vast reservoir has begun to reveal its limits, and reducing the number of boats on the seas seems the only alternative to having the nets return empty.