The recent cancellation of the 2014 shrimp fishing season has been a devastating blow to Maine fishermen, many of whom rely heavily on the short yet profitable season. While the shrimp industry decides where to go from here, many of us find ourselves looking back and wondering: Could we have prevented this?

Let me offer a presumably controversial answer: yes. The Maine shrimping industry could have been saved if it had switched to a privatized fishery years ago.

The idea of privatizing a natural resource such as a fishery seems counterintuitive to most of us. Perhaps it’s true that such public resources can never truly be privatized. Still, a management technique called “catch shares” comes fairly close to a privatized, rights-based system of fishing.

In a catch shares system of fishery management, each fisherman is given the right to a certain percentage of the total allowable catch. The percentage or allotment each fisherman is given is calculated by that fisherman’s average historic catch.

Therefore, while the total allowable catch is reduced so the shrimp stock can replenish, the cuts are distributed in a fair way. If Fisherman Bob and his crew caught an average of 2 percent of the total allowable catch for the last few years, then under the catch shares system, he would have a right to 2 percent of the total allowable catch for next season.

In many cases, fisheries that have converted to catch shares management have significantly recovered, while preserving the local fishing industry.

The catch shares method of fishery management has a number of benefits:

First of all, catch shares prevent larger commercial operations from pushing smaller fishermen out of the industry by guaranteeing a portion of the total allowable catch to everyone.

Secondly, it lengthens the shrimp season because there is no longer a race to get as many shrimp as one can, since one is promised a percentage of the total allowable catch, no matter how long it takes. This also allows greater flexibility on the part of smaller fishing operations, helping them to maintain more consistent hours and retain full-time workers.

And thirdly, the fishery could recover while fairly distributing the costs of a limited total allowable catch.

Of course, a catch share system is not perfect. It seriously limits free market growth, as successful fishermen are not able to effectively increase their share of the fishery. There is also a legitimate concern that smaller fishermen’s shares of the total allowable catch will not be large enough to support their operations, forcing them out of the shrimp industry.

And the catch share approach only tackles half of the problem: overfishing.

In canceling the 2014 shrimp season, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission noted that a large reason that the shrimp stock had been depleted was warmer temperatures in the Atlantic.

Without reliable data, it is unclear how much overfishing really affected the fishery. Perhaps the stock has died of natural causes, and no management system could have restored the number of shrimp in the Gulf of Maine.

For an example, one only needs to look to the New England cod industry, where a catch shares system has been in place since 2009. While scientists believe that the new management has slowed the depletion of cod in the fishery, warmer Atlantic waters have continued to push the stock farther north, away from the Maine coast.

It would seem that in some cases, no amount of human effort can change the course of nature. Still, even in this dire scenario, it would seem that the catch share system has had a positive effect on the industry.

Even with these various concerns, wouldn’t a catch share system be preferable to the drastic cancellation of the 2014 shrimp season? Think of the catch share system as an emergency situation. The number of shrimp available over the season will be cut, no matter what. The rights-based division of the fishery simply spreads those costs across the industry most equitably. It keeps the shrimp industry from collapsing while the stock replenishes to an acceptable level.

No solution would have been perfect; some fishermen would have lost their livelihood and others would have had to cut their profits dramatically in any emergency scenario. But at least a catch shares approach would have let shrimp stocks replenish without entirely canceling the shrimp season.

Instead of a limited and reduced shrimp industry that could eventually return to full strength, we have a dead shrimp industry, and uncertainty that it will ever be able to recover.

— Special to the Press Herald

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