The recent Society for Conservation Biology conference in San Jose, California, included a session on market-based strategies for marine conservation. The Ecosystem Marketplace sat in to hear the latest. SAN JOSE, CALIFORNIA – Crab boats set out in winter storms stacked high with traps to catch whatever they can in shortened seasons. Trawlers drag nets across the ocean bottom, burying the seafloor and crushing sea life. Marine habitats and fisheries are in trouble—and marine conservation is twenty years behind its terrestrial counterpart, says Mike Beck of The Nature Conservancy. But a recent session coordinated by Beck at the Society for Conservation Biology Conference made it clear that marine conservationists are ready to launch a quick game of catch up.
Sharing the Catch
Much of the effort focuses on fisheries. Existing policies that set total allowable catch numbers but don't regulate how much any individual can take encourage fishermen to maximize their catches. "It's like a piñata," says Rod Fujita, a biologist with Environmental Defense. "When it breaks, no one stands around saying 'you first.' Everyone dives in and grabs as much as they can." Under this regimen, he says, "conservation is irrational—if you leave something, someone else will just take it." This leads to a host of undesirable results: too many boats fishing for too few fish, gear designed for the maximum haul regardless of bycatch or habitat destruction, and a short, frenzied time span for catching the quota, with resulting inefficiency and dangerous conditions. It also emphasizes short-term profit over long-term sustainability, causing the destructive boom-and-bust cycles that recur in species after species as fishing fleets burn through one resource and move on to the next. To keep fisheries alive, Fujita argues, "We need to fix the fundamental drivers of behavior." One market-based conservation strategy advocated by Environmental Defense and a growing host of environmental and fishing groups is for fishermen to share the catch by means of Individual Transferable Quotas, or ITQs, which distribute a set percentage of the total allowable catch to a limited number of fishermen. Fishermen can catch their share of the fish, or can decide to sell, trade, or lease their shares on the open market. Giving fishermen an ownership stake changes the equation in critical ways. When everyone knows they'll get their fair share of the bounty, there's no piñata scramble. Fishermen can fish when and how they see fit. Fishing can be done more deliberately, with greater safety for fishing crews, leading to higher-quality fish in the hold and resulting higher prices at the docks. Even more important, an ITQ has long-term value that increases with the health of the fish stocks, providing a built-in incentive for fishermen to take care of the resource.
Environmental Defense is also working with The Nature Conservancy on another market use of fishing permits along California's central coast. Chuck Cook from The Nature Conservancy describes how they approached conservation in one fishery. Analyzing the threats to 25 hotspots of marine biodiversity, they targeted bottom-trawl fishing as particularly destructive. Trawlers catch bottom-dwelling fish, primarily flatfish, sablefish, and rockfish, by means of a weighted net dragged along the ocean bottom. The method destroys habitat and, since everything in the trawl's path is scooped up, results in a huge percentage of bycatch relative to the target species. In 2003, says Cook, West Coast trawlers caught 50 million pounds of seafood. They discarded a nearly equal tonnage of bycatch, much of it juveniles of the target species. Studies in protected areas have shown that eliminating trawling allows fish species and bottom habitats to recover—but it also cuts into the livelihood of local fishermen. In a pilot project, The Nature Conservancy worked with Morro Bay fishermen to find a solution. Together, they approached the Pacific Fishery Management Council with a proposal: close a section of the coast to trawling and The Nature Conservancy would buy back permits and vessels from the fishermen to offset the fishing loss. In May, 2006, trawling was banned on 3.8 million acres off the California coast between Santa Barbara and Monterey Bay. The Nature Conservancy purchased six permits and four boats, reducing the fishing pressure on the remaining open areas by 83%. The federal government has tried buying back permits to reduce fishing pressure on particular species, says Cook, but the buy-outs have failed for a number of reasons. This program, unique in being a private buy-out, builds on earlier lessons. "In the federal programs there was nothing to prevent people from reentering the fishery after a buy-out," says Cook. "The buy-outs were done to consolidate the industry and make it economically viable, but there was no large public-trust benefit—no real environmental focus, and no monitoring." This program has "no-compete" clauses for the participating fishermen, and The Nature Conservancy plans to monitor the no-trawl zones to make sure the ban is observed. Now that The Nature Conservancy holds fishing rights to the area, the organization has several options for what to do with the permits. For the time being, they'll bank the permits or extinguish them and watch to see how the fish stocks do. In the future, if stocks recover, they could lease permits back to select fishermen with constraints built into the leases to ensure responsible fishing, "moving in the direction of conservation easements on land," says Cook. For example, a lease could specify that fishing be done with traps or vertical long-lines, methods that target abundant species and preserve endangered ones. While such methods may catch fewer tons of fish, the ones they do catch could potentially be certified as ecologically sustainable and sold at a premium price.
Beck, a colleague of Cook's at The Nature Conservancy, expands further on the applications that land conservation strategies have in the marine realm. "At first we thought, 'How can we work in marine conservation? We buy land,'" says Beck. The hurdles seemed high—not only was submerged land not "land," but most coastal waters are publicly owned and not available for purchase. But as his organization began to do some homework, Beck says, they realized that vast swaths of public waters are available for lease. Oil companies famously hold offshore leases; other underwater leaseholders include enterprises such as docks, marinas, and aquaculture companies. Conservation groups weren't on that list—but, The Nature Conservancy figured, there wasn't any reason they couldn't be. The trick was convincing the agencies responsible for the marine areas that a conservation group should be considered on par with other competitors for leases, and that restoration and research are just as legitimate a use of marine parcels as more traditional extractive uses. "Conservation's not a special interest, just another interest that needs access," explains Beck. Washington State Department of Natural Resources bought the logic of this argument, understanding how such an arrangement could further its own conservation mission. In 2005, it became the first governmental agency in the nation to lease an underwater property for conservation. And The Conservancy has now begun restoring species and habitat in Washington state waters. The Conservancy was encouraged by its Washington experience and by underwater conservation it had undertaken on some of its own holdings. Finding that submerged-land leases were both affordable and relatively easy to obtain, they moved forward and outward, to offshore waters. At the close of the conference session, Beck described The Nature Conservancy's most recent effort off the California coast, where they have leased two kelp forest beds. The state makes available half the kelp beds in its waters, at the rate of $1,000 per square mile. Most are leased to kelp harvesting companies, which mow the top part of the forests to produce alginate and feed farmed abalone. The Nature Conservancy is using its beds to study the effects of such harvesting on juvenile rockfish, which shelter in the kelp forest canopy when they're small. Beck is enthusiastic about the possibilities and eager to show the way for other groups. "Think about all the coastal land trusts—they could all be doing this," he says. His message to groups devoted to the ocean: "Don't wait. Don't whine. Just do it." Eileen Campbell is a science writer and partner at Farallon Media, which produces exhibits, documentaries, and other media on nature and history. She can be reached at email@example.com. First published: July 24, 2006 Please see our Reprint Guidelines for details on republishing our articles. For a synopsis of the Q&A session that followed the above presentations at the Society for Conservation Biology conference, see below.