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What are Catch Shares?

Under traditional fishery management approaches, such as limits on the number of days at sea, anyone who wants to participate in the fishery can fish until the annual catch limit is reached. This can lead to a competitive environment, with fishermen racing each other to catch as many fish as they can before the annual catch limit is reached and the fishery is closed for the season. This approach has often resulted in more boats and gear in the water than is either biologically or economically necessary to catch the available harvest. This type of management system often results in shorter fishing seasons, unsafe fishing practices, and high levels of bycatch. Another serious drawback to this system is that too many fish may be brought to market at once, depressing the price of fish for fishermen.

Catch shares are a proven fishery management tool that allows flexibility and accountability in fisheries worldwide. In appropriate circumstances, catch share programs can play an essential role in meeting our national goal of rebuilding and sustaining our fishery resources. In catch share programs, a portion of the catch for a species is allocated to individual fishermen or groups. Each holder of a catch share must stop fishing when his/her specific share of the quota is reached. Catch share programs allow fishermen to plan their fishing effort around the weather, markets, or other business considerations. This also allows other fishery dependent businesses to plan more effectively. Because fishermen are allotted a share of the quota, they gain an economic incentive to catch their allocation at the least cost. In addition, reduced pressure to “race for the fish” gives fishermen the freedom to experiment with new methods to reduce bycatch such as gear changes.


All fishery management programs, including catch shares, should identify specific measureable goals for management. In fisheries that have been subject to open access, it is likely that some degree of overcapacity exists, which contributes to poor economic performance. Therefore, capacity reduction is common to the goals of catch share programs. For non catch-share fisheries that have overcapacity, fishermen that leave the fishery do so without compensation. Under catch shares, as the overcapacity of the fleet diminishes over time (i.e., consolidation of the fleet to economically efficient levels), those that decide to exit the fishery receive compensation via the sale price of their shares.

While catch shares have been a successful tool in many instances, it is important to note that catch shares are not appropriate for every fishery, and the potential negative impacts should be kept in mind when considering, designing, implementing, and evaluating catch shares. Catch shares can result in some consolidation of the harvesting sector because some fishermen holding shares choose to sell their privileges to someone else. While they are compensated for leaving the fishery, others, like fishing crews, are impacted by their decisions. For example, in the Bering Sea crab fishery, many part-time crew jobs were converted into full-time jobs. There have also been other concerns expressed about how catch share programs might affect current jobs in the fishery, new entrants to the fishery or fishing communities. 


With the development of any new catch share program, there is a great deal of design flexibility to allow fisheries to support the type of fleet the regional fishery management council (council) has identified through its goals and objectives. Options can include diverse fleets of small and large vessels, owner-operated fleets, set aside shares for specific sectors, and opportunities for new entrants to the fishery.

NOAA recommends that councils pay particular attention to the following critical design issues.