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Catch Shares – Frequently Asked Questions

1. What are catch shares?

Catch shares are a way of managing fishing that gives a specific portion of the year’s overall catch limit to individual fishermen, or a group of fishermen, for their exclusive use. Unlike traditional fisheries management in which fishermen compete with each other in a race to catch as many fish as possible before the overall limit is reached and a fishery is closed, catch shares typically give more security to fishermen, allowing them to pursue their portion when they want to, such as during better weather, or at more favorable times throughout the year when costs are lower or the value of fish is higher.

Catch Shares Home Page NOAA's Catch Share Policy
Glossary of Catch Share Terms National Progress Reports
Magnuson-Stevens 2007 Government Accountability Office Reports
Design & Use of LAPPs (NOAA Technical Memo) Research Papers & References
Catch Share Policy Guiding Principles Council & Regional Resources

2. Why are catch share programs implemented?

Catch share programs have often been implemented by regional fishery management councils in fisheries where there is too much capacity – in other words, where the number of fishing vessels or the ability of each vessel to catch fish has grown beyond what the fish population can sustain in the long term. This problem can result from a management system based on controls on effort, such as the number of days a fisherman can spend at sea. These more traditional fishing controls gave fishermen an incentive to use more and more powerful boats and technology to catch fish as quickly as possible within their allotted days at sea, out competing others in the fishery. This in turn resulted in shorter and shorter seasons, more dangerous fishing practices, and gluts of fish catch landing on the market in shorter and shorter time periods. Outcomes of this cycle can be recurrent overfishing, limited fishing seasons and lower values for fishermen, stress for processors handling the sudden influx of fish, and difficulties for consumers looking for a steady, reliable supply of fresh seafood throughout the year.

Catch share programs are one of the fishery management tools that can address the challenge of too much capacity. Transferring shares in catch share programs can benefit fishermen who want to withdraw from a fishery or switch to another fishery by allowing them to trade or sell their shares to other eligible fishermen. Fishermen can also buy available shares and thus increase their potential fishing.

The critical component in the development of a catch share program is for the councils to determine their goals and objectives for the fishery. The councils must evaluate the use of catch share programs in the context of their overall objectives for the fishery, including the balance between economic efficiency and social and community goals. For example, as a way to protect fishermen and fishing communities, almost all catch share programs in the United States have excessive share caps, which limit the amount of quota any fishermen, group of fishermen or other entity can fish.

3. What are the catch share programs in the United States?

There are currently 16 catch share programs in federal waters. This map shows all catch share programs listed by regional fishery management council.

4. Are catch shares new?

No. Several other nations began developing catch share programs in the 1970s. In the United States, the first federal catch share program, for Atlantic surf clams and ocean quahogs, began in 1990.

5. What is the difference between catch limits and catch shares?

A catch limit is, in short, the sustainable amount of fish that can be caught in any given year. The 2006 reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Act required catch limits be set for all federally managed fisheries, to prevent overfishing. Catch limits rely on a transparent, peer-reviewed, scientific process of assessing the status of the fish population. Put simply, a catch limit sets how big the pie is for fishermen as a group in any given year.

Catch shares are an optional management tool that divides up the pie into slices. The catch shares are allocated to individual fishermen or groups, who are held accountable for not exceeding their share.

6. Why did NOAA create a catch share policy?

NOAA released its Catch Share Policy in 2010 to provide guidance and best practices for regional fisheries management councils to use when considering catch shares. The policy was developed with extensive public input and was intended to help councils that chose catch shares to design their program with the benefit of lessons learned from other catch share programs already in existence in the United States. While catch shares are not appropriate for all fisheries, when they are well-designed, they can help achieve ecological and economic sustainability for fishery resources and fishing communities.

Download NOAA's Catch Share Policy

7. Who creates a catch share program for a fishery?

Catch share programs, like all management strategies for federal fisheries, are developed through a highly participatory and public process led by the nation’s eight regional fishery management councils, each of which has a particular geographic area of responsibility. The councils are made up of commercial and recreational fishermen, academics, and fishery managers. The key to a successful catch share program is extensive fishermen and other stakeholder involvement in the design of the program that takes into consideration each community’s particular fishing traditions and goals. The process can take a significant amount of time: the nation’s most recent catch share program for groundfish and Pacific whiting trawlers on the West Coast, for example, took more than six years to develop.

8. Does NOAA have a numeric goal for new catch share programs by a set deadline?

No. NOAA does not require catch shares in federal fisheries. The only requirements for fishery councils is that they follow the Magnuson-Stevens Act, including by setting annual limits on the amount of fish that can be caught to sustain healthy fish populations. NOAA supports councils having the flexibility to consider all management options, including catch shares, when determining how best to meet the requirements of the law.

9. Why would councils choose to adopt catch share management?

Catch share programs reflect the unique characteristics of different fisheries and therefore vary widely across regions, but there are some shared goals. Among the most frequently stated objectives are improving fishermen’s ability to make a sustainable living from fishing and removing the drivers that led to overfishing, low prices, discarding of low-value fish or fish caught unintentionally, and unsafe fishing conditions. This last goal is a crucial one: when fishermen are no longer racing for the fish and are freer to fish when they want, fishing safety rises substantially with demonstrably fewer deaths and injuries in a profession that has always been physically challenging.

10. What proof is there that catch shares are working for fishermen or fish populations?

The Magnuson-Stevens Act requires NOAA and the councils to conduct a review that analyzes whether certain programs meet their biological, economic and other goals five years after the program starts, and every seven years thereafter. NOAA’s catch share policy encourages the councils to conduct reviews on this timeline and many programs produce annual reports. Listed below are recent reports on several catch share programs that show how established program goals are being met.

Catch Share Program Reports

Bering Sea and Aleutian Island Crab Northeast Groundfish
Gulf of Mexico Red Snapper West Coast Trawl Groundfish
Halibut-Sablefish