Saving the bay's fisheries

The Baltimore Sun

Everyone knows that the Chesapeake Bay is in deep trouble. One of the clearest signs is the state of our fishing industry. There are bans on clamming, serious limits on yellow perch fishing and restrictions on crab harvests so severe that the federal government is spending $10 million to help watermen. This is a far cry from the Chesapeake of 400 years ago, when John Smith wrote about fish "lying so thick with their heads above the water, as for want of nets."

Despite today's desperate situation, I am more optimistic than ever about Maryland's fisheries. Why? Because we now know how to end overfishing. It is one environmental crisis that can actually be solved in the near term, to the great benefit of watermen, fishing communities and the bay. President-elect Barack Obama and the new Congress should not pass over this remarkable opportunity.

Our troubles in Maryland are not unique. In the United States, barely one-quarter of our fisheries are known to be sustainable. Fisheries that once yielded abundance and employed thousands are depleted. In some cases, efforts to stop overfishing and rebuild collapsed stocks have been successful, but these successes are few and far between.

Indeed, virtually all of the world's fish stocks are fully exploited, are overexploited or have crashed. We have taken nearly all there is to take.

Bad rules and regulations are perpetuating this global crisis because they neither provide sufficient safeguards against overfishing nor offer fishermen the incentive to rebuild fish populations. Ineffective rules cost the global economy an estimated $50 billion every year, according to a new study by the World Bank and U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization.

Fixing the rules and adopting other reforms, that same study found, could reverse the situation and transform commercial fishing from a massive economic loser to a driver of economic growth and job creation.

Of all the ways to manage a fishery, only one system has a clear record of success. Called "catch shares," the approach is underused in the United States despite the fact that it could at least double the net economic value of our fisheries. Furthermore, catch shares provide big benefits to the economy as a whole and to the ocean ecosystem. Recent studies in the journals Science and Nature found that catch shares can prevent - and even reverse - the collapse of the world's fish stocks.

Catch shares allocate a percentage of the overall catch to individual fishermen, who can then choose to fish their entire share, or sell their share, or sell a portion of it. Because the value of the share rises with the health of the overall fish stock, catch shares give fishermen a strong incentive to be good stewards of the oceans. Fishermen are also heavily penalized for fishing more than they are allotted.

A key element of catch shares is that they set strict performance standards but let fishermen decide how best to meet them. That's a far cry from traditional fishing management that tells fishermen how and when to fish.

For the last decade, Virginia has used catch shares to manage its commercial striped bass fishery in bay and ocean waters. As a result, the fishing season has been extended from three to 11 months. Virginia fishermen are making more money and, most important, striped bass populations are in good shape.

Maryland is considering the use of similar catch shares programs for striped bass and other commercial fisheries. This could turn around the declining fishing industry in the bay and bolster Maryland's reputation as a leading supplier of seafood.

Still, more needs to be done to ensure that state and federal fishery managers consider the use of catch shares to end overfishing. Congress has mandated that overfishing be ended by 2011. The new administration must put management measures in place to meet that deadline. Well-designed catch shares programs will provide a much-needed and long-overdue economic boost to a fishing industry that has been in decline for decades.

In our lifetimes, we may not see the Chesapeake Bay clogged with fish the way John Smith did, but we can turn the situation around and bring real benefits to watermen and all U.S. fishermen. Reviving America's fishing industry with catch shares is a political, economic and ecological win for the taking.

Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest is a Republican who has represented Maryland's 1st Congressional District since 1991.

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