PCFFA Fishermen’s News Column, March 2009: Community Fishing Associations


March, 2009

Community Fishing Associations: A New Way Forward

By Sara Randall, Nate Grader

You may have noticed over the past few months that nearly every major newspaper in the United States has carried at least one opinion piece touting the benefits of Individual Fishing Quotas (IFQs), albeit under a new name. IFQs, it seems, have been rebranded as “catch shares” for the well-funded Environmental Defense Fund campaign to promote IFQs for every fishery in the United States and the world. Catch shares, according to these op-ed pieces, are going to end overfishing and end the “race to fish.”

Proponents of IFQs have been effective at convincing the uninitiated of the merit of the “catch shares” idea, especially when it’s disingenuously presented as the only alternative to an “Olympic” style open access fishery, few of which still exist.

It’s not just at the editorial boards where quota program proponents have been effective at broadcasting their message. Over the past few years, proponents of IFQs have also been effective at promoting their agenda in Council meetings, legislative venues, NGO events such as the recent Seafood Summit in San Diego, and on the Hill in Washington with the recently published EDF report “Oceans of Abundance.”

This simplistic one-size-fits-all approach to fisheries management has done a disservice to the diversity of fisheries management options that have proven effective, and others that show promise. Make no mistake — the proponents of IFQs are explicit in their desire to have every fishery in the U.S. managed by IFQs as part of a plan to parcel up and privatize the ocean (now under the aegis of “marine spatial planning”).

At the Seafood Summit, these proponents openly asserted that IFQs are the only hope for saving the fishing industry. This may come as a surprise to those of you who fish in well managed non-IFQ fisheries.

We do know that IFQs, in certain circumstances and if tightly regulated with low accumulation caps, owner-operator provisions, and opportunities for new entrants can be one way to manage a fishery. The classic example, and one that is mentioned in all the pro-IFQ literature, is the Alaskan sablefish/halibut fishery. However, in practice IFQ fisheries are rarely implemented in this fashion, and generally come under intense political pressure to remove owner-operator requirements and accumulation caps as fishermen age.

We also know that the initial allocation of quota comes at a high social cost. Many fishermen are pushed out of these fisheries in an initial allocation, and young fishermen are burdened with expensive loans to pay for buying their first quota share. IFQs can reduce the race to fish but are certainly not the only way to do that.

Perhaps the most galling aspect of the campaign, apart from the paternalistic rhetoric about “saving fishermen,” is the claim that IFQs will end overfishing. It is the Total Allowable Catch (TAC) based on hopefully good science that is responsible for ending overfishing in a quota fishery, not the way the TAC is divided up among fishermen. If quotas themselves are set too high, over-fishing will still occur, IFQs or no.

Unfortunately, the “catch share” campaign has now drowned out all other ideas and other approaches to fisheries management in public discourse and among policy makers. Amidst all of the discussion about catch shares, another approach to fisheries management has gotten a lot less attention despite its increasing popularity with many fishing communities around the country.

Community Fishing Associations, which fall under the same provision in the Magnuson-Stevens Act (MSA) as IFQs (they are all called “Limited Access Privilege Programs”), are a viable, if still somewhat undeveloped, alternative to IFQs and other traditional fishery management tools. In this article we want to suggest that community fishing associations can be an effective way to manage a fishery, as well as to address many of the most pressing challenges facing fishing communities.

However, unlike the proponents of “catch shares,” we do not want to suggest that this model is a cure-all for every fishery. Some fisheries are well managed already, under limited entry programs for example, and to suggest a change to these fisheries would be unnecessary.

What Are Community Fishing Associations?

The MSA allows for the creation of community fishing associations under two different categories — fishing communities and regional fishing associations — within the Limited Access Privilege Programs (LAPPs) provision of the Act.

First, a fishing community (FC) is made up of residents who conduct commercial or recreational fishing, processing, or fishery dependent support businesses. In order for a fishing community to be recognized, it would have to submit a community sustainability plan to the Council that addresses the social and economic development needs of coastal communities including those that have not had the resources to participate historically.

A Regional Fishing Association (RFA), on the other hand, must be a voluntary association consisting of participants in the fishery who hold quota share for use in that region. The RFA must have established by-laws and operating procedures and must develop an RFA plan to be submitted to the Council.

The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has not yet developed standards or published rules relevant to any of the LAPPs provisions, including IFQs. Nor have the Councils developed criteria for community associations as they are required to do pursuant to the reauthorized MSA. At this point it is unclear what standards are going to be developed at the national level, or what criteria will be developed at each Council.

It is possible that the structure of community associations might differ markedly in each region, based on what criteria each Council develops. PCFFA and other groups around the country are currently working to help develop a national framework that would be broad enough to apply to every fishing community, but still flexible enough to allow communities to tailor the structure of an association to fit local needs.

At the Council level there are already groups that are working to develop criteria for community fishing associations. For instance, in Morro Bay, California, the Nature Conservancy is working to develop a community fishing association with trawl permits that they now own. They have petitioned the Pacific Council to recognize this entity within the groundfish IFQ program and develop criteria that would govern it.

Regardless of the criteria that the Councils develop or the rule making and national standards that NMFS may develop, a community fishing association will, in most circumstances, be structured around an individual port and will be composed of fishermen, processors, and representatives of associated businesses within that port. A community fishing association could hold limited access privileges as an entity in order to anchor access to fish in that community. A community fishing association could also potentially lease quota or other access privileges that it holds to individual fishermen there. In any event, the relationship between individual fishermen and community associations will likely vary according to region.

Many questions still remain concerning community fishing associations, but this has not stopped “proto-community fishing associations” from springing up throughout the country. The formation of these “proto-associations,” which are quite different throughout the country, has been driven by the same forces and seeks to achieve the same basic goals.

In many cases, small fishing communities have had to change the structure of their operations when presented with decreasing catches or decreasing fishery access. In Port Clyde, Maine, for instance, fishermen formed a fishing cooperative that markets and sells fish under a “Port Clyde Fresh Catch” brand directly to consumers through a “community supported fishery” or CSF. Consumers can subscribe to the CSF and receive headed and gutted fish delivered through a network of local churches. The enterprise has proven successful and profitable. This year the project is expanding due to its popularity. The Washington Post recently profiled the Port Clyde fishermen and the story brought national attention to these new approaches fishing communities are developing in order to survive.

Some of the issues that will have to be addressed in structuring either a community fishing association or regional fishing association, as either standards or guidelines, include:

Defining the Community. Perhaps the initial rule or standard related to a FC or RFA will be the requirement to identify in the initial formation statement who the members of the FC or RFA are, including its Board of Directors and Executive Committee and Executive staff. The statement should define who is eligible for membership, as well as how a member can join or leave. How the rule or standard is developed for defining community for purposes of either an FC or RFA will be important in preventing either an FC or RFA becoming simply the surrogate of a large processor, or even an environmental NGO.

Purposes of the Organization. The rules or standards for the FC or RFA will need to state what the purposes of the FC or RFA will be. The purpose could simply be to hold quota on behalf of its members. Or it could be much broader, so as to include a number of community fishing needs such as marketing, purchasing cooperatives, even establishing a group health insurance program for members.

Financial Structure. Here a rule or standard should require providing a detailed financial statement on behalf of an FC or RFA when it organizes, and periodically thereafter.

It is conceivable some fishing community organizations might want to be organized as for-profit entities, such as cooperatives, while others may choose to organize as a non-profit type of organization. The statement of the initial financial structure should include the nature of its assets, including whether or not it will hold quota in its own name (as opposed to simply being a loose association of quota holders), or whether it will acquire quota. It should also include what other assets it owns or leases, together with a plan for annual financial disclosure to the regional fishery council or even NMFS, as well as to its members.

Rights of the Organization. A rule or standard will be required to state what inherent rights an FC or RFA would have, including the amount of quota share it would be allowed to hold or control and what authorities it would be delegated by the regional councils and NMFS.

Rights of Members. Here there would need to be rules requiring the FC or RFA to spell out in detail the rights of members along with an appeals mechanism for members (as well as non-member fishermen or processors) who believe they have been aggrieved by an FC or RFA. The rights section should also state how members are entitled to use quota held by the community. Or if quota is held only by individuals within that community, it would specify how that quota would transfer within the community when an individual member chooses to cash out.

Transparency and Oversight. An FC or RFA would be either holding or acquiring quota of public trust resources. Rules would have to be established requiring transparency within the organization as well as for oversight by the regional council.

Relationship to the Regional Fishery Council. Here rules would be needed outlining the relationship of an FC or RFA to the regional fishery management Council, including oversight, appeals, approval of an FC or RFA by the Council, allocation, where applicable the relationship of quota to the organization, methods and standards for revoking of privileges, or even rules for dissolution of the FC or RFA by a regional council.

Anti-Trust. Finally, a rule would need to establish that the actions of an FC or RFA do not violate any state or federal anti-trust statutes, particularly where an organization may hold a substantial portion of the quota to a fishery or where it might have control over most or all of the fisheries in a port. This might also require changes in state anti-trust laws.

What Can Community Associations Accomplish?

Now that we know what a community association is, and what they are likely to look like, it’s time to look at what they can accomplish.

Hopefully, community fishing associations can avoid many of the pitfalls that IFQ systems are susceptible to. A community association could work in many different fisheries. However, such mechanisms do not necessarily make sense for all fisheries.

It should also be emphasized that a community fishing association can be structured in a way to fit local circumstances. A community association in some fishing communities could be used primarily to market fish, while in another it could be used to acquire fishing quota in order to maintain a small scale port-based fleet and local fishery.

The “proto-community fishing associations” that have developed so far show a pretty wide diversity of objectives and capabilities. At the end of the day community fishing associations are just another way to manage a fishery.

1. Developing New Markets

It’s no secret that the competition from aquaculture and imported seafood has had a profound effect on the domestic ocean fishing industry.

While imported seafood and aquaculture may have a competitive advantage in price, since they do not pay the true environmental and labor costs of their products, U.S. fishermen still have several advantages over producers of these types of products.

Wild fisheries will always produce a healthier product than aquaculture, no matter what the fish nutritionists cook up. Domestic wild fisheries have the advantage of being closer to markets and can therefore shorten the supply chain to provide a fresher product. Wild fisheries can also be marketed to take advantage of the positive public image of fishermen, in much the same way that some agricultural products take advantage of the image of the small family farmer.

A community fishing association could capitalize on these advantages much better than an individual fisherman by developing a regional brand. Developing a local brand based around a community fishing association would be very much like the marketing efforts of state seafood councils, except on a finer scale.

A community fishing association could also provide more coordination for marketing efforts already underway at the individual level. For instance, in recent years we’ve seen many fishermen engaging in direct sales at farmer’s markets, or straight from their boats or even through shipping by express mail.

Fishing groups have also long tried to promote awareness among consumers about local and seasonal seafood options. Some fishing groups have applied for third party sustainability certification for their fisheries in order to increase the profitability of the fishery and differentiate it in the marketplace. But most of these efforts have been haphazard and sporadic. A community fishing association could use all these tools more effectively than each individual going it alone.

The demand for locally caught and fresher seafood is growing rapidly, but right now going largely unmet in many parts of the country. Some in the fishing industry have dismissed this demand as “niche” or “boutique” markets. This criticism greatly underestimates the potential size and importance of these new and emerging markets.

The challenge is reaching these new markets in a more effective way than is happening now. Certainly the Port Clyde effort to take the product directly to consumers is an innovative approach — but by no means the only one.

Emerging market niches becoming available to fishermen have not gone unnoticed. Aquaculture companies are also busy working to develop a domestic aquaculture industry that can tap into these niches. In California, aquaculture companies are interested in developing a “California Grown” brand for farmed fish to meet this demand. The development of “organic” aquaculture is probably also a response to this demand. Community fishing associations could provide a structure to coordinate this kind of marketing and reach key consumers first.

2. Protecting Smaller Ports and Smaller-Scale Fishermen

Community fishing associations are a way to protect smaller ports and smaller-scale fishermen. In an IFQ fishery, many ports could suddenly see their access to fish disappear as quota simply moves out of smaller ports. In the advent of an IFQ fishery, fishing quota could instead be anchored to a particular community through a community fishing association. The fishermen, processors, and other dependent businesses that make up the association in that port could then make decisions on how to use that quota in order to maximize its economic and social benefit to their own community.

Smaller-scale fishermen are likely to lose out in an IFQ fishery, but a community association could help assure that smaller-scale fishermen continue to have access to fish. A community association can also help fishermen diversify their fishing “portfolios” by providing access to fisheries that they do not otherwise have permits or quota for.

We’ve seen that in order for fishermen to remain in business these days, they need a diverse “portfolio” of fisheries to access. An over-reliance on one fishery makes fishermen vulnerable to fluctuations in that fishery.

3. Maintaining Infrastructure

Maintaining infrastructure is of course related to maintaining smaller fishing ports. As fishing fleets continue to consolidate, infrastructure at many ports has gone into disrepair. (See our past article in September 2008 FN regarding the crumbling port infrastructure, www.pcffa.org/fn-sep08.htm).

IFQ systems would likely only hasten the collapse of port infrastructure already badly in need of repair, particularly when quota leaves small port communities and fleet consolidation shifts efforts to larger vessels in large ports. Community fishing associations can help reverse some of these trends by anchoring boats to communities and better assuring local access to local fish, thus helping smaller ports maintain the diversity of fisheries that’s necessary to support their infrastructure.

4. Attracting New Entrants

One major challenge that a community fishing association can address is attracting new entrants into the fishery. IFQs prevent people from entering the fishery unless they come from established fishing families already owning boats or are wealthy enough to purchase quota.

A community fishing association could ease the burden and economic uncertainty of entering a new fishery by providing easier access specifically to upcoming younger fishermen. The uncertainty and volatility of the fishing industry currently keeps many potential new fishermen outside.

NMFS and proponents of IFQs make the assumption that fisheries can no longer support a significant number of jobs. Consolidating fleet size, they argue, is the only way to maintain the viability of the fishing industry.

A community fishing association model assumes just the opposite — that fisheries can support more jobs by allowing more small-scale family fishermen the opportunity to fish for higher value fish. Community fishing associations would therefore likely lead to a more regionally diverse and economically flexible fleet, as well as stronger fishing communities, than would the massive economic concentration and fleet consolidation that is almost inevitable under ITQs.

5. Building Public Support

One of the most important functions that a community fishing association can fulfill is to provide a way for fishing communities to develop stronger public support, which is no small thing.

At Pacific Marine Expo we had the opportunity to meet one of the founders of the Port Clyde Association, Glen Libby. Libby told us that one of the most important outcomes of their project was the enormous public support they were able to develop. The Port Clyde trawl fishery had been declining because of increasingly restricted access to diminishing stocks. Libby and his colleagues worked to develop more selective trawls with wider windows at the same time they began their CSF. By educating their CSF subscribers about the gear they use and the sustainability of the fishery, they were able to tap into a new ally — the consumer. A community fishing association that is able to build strong public support is more likely to maintain access, and more likely to keep markets to survive economic downturns.

Consumer support can be extremely important to our industry. In California we have seen a recent example of how public support can help maintain access. In 2002, when it looked like much of the Pacific groundfish trawl fishery was going to be shut down, one fisherman in particular was able to keep his fishery open partly because of the strong public support he received.

By 2002, Steve Fitz had developed a small but highly sustainable fishery for sand dabs using a Scottish seine, and had developed something of a following among local restaurateurs and consumers. In response to news of the impending shutdown of the fishery, consumers who knew how Fitz fished advocated to help keep his fishery open. This is an example of just one fisherman who was able to maintain his access. But any fishing organization that is able to develop a strong relationship with a local community can build an important alliance. Such relationships provide a real opportunity to improve the public image of fishermen through education and outreach, which can only help our whole industry.

A “Meet the Fishermen” dinner organized by the Institute for Fisheries Resources provides an example of another way this can work. During the Slow Food Nation festival in San Francisco in 2008, IFR held a “Meet the Fishermen” dinner at the prestigious Hayes Street Grill in San Francisco. The fishermens’ dinner was the first to sell out, and it provided an opportunity for “foodies” to meet real working fishermen face to face. The fishermen who participated had a chance to explain how they fish, what it’s like to be on the ocean, and what things they see on the water. The event was enormously successful.

These are just two examples of the important connections that can be built with consumers. A community fishery association can provide the structure for this kind of sustained outreach and contact with consumers over a long term.

6. Providing Health Care

Health care is an issue that has been a major concern for fishermen around the country and the subject of other FN articles (see the PCFFA column in the March 2008 issue: www.pcffa.org/fn-mar08.htm).

The Commercial Fishermen of America (CFA) has been working to restore national healthcare for fishermen through federal legislation since its beginning. Until that happens, or until something better happens regarding health care access in the U.S. generally, many fishermen desperately need healthcare. Most now must go without.

Commercial fishermen are difficult to insure for a number of reasons. Fishermen work in a dangerous job, most fishermen are now in an expensive age bracket to insure, and many fishermen move around a lot for work. A community fishing association could offer a base for fishermen to access health care as a group. Grouping together the members of a community fishing association lowers the risk to insurance companies inherent in insuring specific individuals, making the companies much more likely to insure the group.

A New Way Forward?

The potential benefits of community fishing associations have not been fully explored, which makes the campaign to implement IFQs in every fishery instead all the more frustrating. IFQs are just not going to be the salvation for fisheries and fishing communities that their supporters would have you believe. There are — or should be soon — better alternatives to forced economic consolidation, big-boat vs. small-boat fleet wars and privatizing precious public resources.

Clearly there are other (and likely better) ways to manage a fishery sustainably that keep more people employed and derive more value from a fishery. Innovative fishermen’s communities around the country have already been finding ways to meet the major challenges they face head on.

The MSA already allows for the creation of these kinds of community-based fishing support organizations. However, standards or guidelines clearly need to be developed to encourage these alternatives to mature.

A group of fishermen in Port Orford, Oregon, have adopted the motto “Fish Smarter, Not Harder” for an organization (the Port Orford Ocean Resource Team) they founded to participate in bottom-up fisheries management decisions, collaborative research, and direct marketing. This motto could very well become a mantra for emerging community fishing associations around the country. Community associations are all about finding a smarter response to the challenges that face fishing communities today.

Sara Randall is Program Director for the Institute for Fisheries Resources (IFR), which works to protect fisheries resources and fishing communities on the U.S. west coast. IFR is separate from but closely affiliated with the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations (PCFFA). Nate Grader is also a staff member of IFR working primarily on sustainable fisheries policy issues. The authors can be reached at IFR’s San Francisco Office at (415)561-3437, x 222 or by email to: srandall@ifrfish.org. IFR’s web site is at www.ifrfish.org.