Catch Shares Improve Fishing Safety

January 06, 2022

New research looks at the role of fisheries management in fishing safety.


A new study examines how catch share programs can make fishing safer by providing flexibility in when fishermen can fish.

Certain “risky” behaviors make fishing one of the most dangerous lines of work. Previous research found that these behaviors dropped sharply following the adoption of catch share management in the West Coast fixed gear sablefish fishery.

Fishing Safety in Different Catch Share Programs

Over the past 20 years, NOAA Fisheries adopted catch shares in eight fisheries across the country. These catch shares, or individual fishing quotas, changed the incentives around fisheries by giving each vessel rights to a specific share of the allowable catch. Vessels could then choose how and when to fish for their share.

“Our initial work showed a classic story of a fishery that evolved into an intense race to fish,” said Lisa Pfeiffer, lead author of the paper and an economist at NOAA Fisheries’ Northwest Fisheries Science Center. “Then, after implementation of a catch share program, the fishing season lengthened, and we saw a huge shift in fishermen’s decisions to fish.”

Pfeiffer wanted to see how the sablefish fishery compared to the eight other catch share fisheries across the United States. So she modeled weather conditions and fishing behavior in these eight fisheries to determine how the adoption of catch shares changed fishing behavior, specifically the decision to fish in poor weather.

Catch Share Programs Influence Fishing Decisions

She expected that weather would have less influence on fishermen’s decisions if they weren’t in a catch share fishery. This is because fishermen often have little choice but to fish when the season is open. If seasons are very short, they may need to fish in poor weather if they are going to fish at all. Pfeiffer hypothesized that after a catch share program was put in place, fishermen would have more flexibility to avoid poor weather. They would fish less in stormy or dangerous conditions.

Pfeiffer’s research confirmed those expectations in most fisheries she studied. Catch shares reduced the incentive to take riskier trips in poor weather.

Not All Catch Share Programs Are Created Alike

However, she found some nuances. The structure of the catch share program and the previous management matters, too.

One example is the West Coast groundfish trawl fishery. Before the catch share program, it had a long, drawn-out season in which they could only fish a certain amount per month. Under the catch share program, fishermen condensed their effort into a shorter time window. This is economically advantageous (because they could also participate in other fisheries throughout the year) but resulted in fishers taking on somewhat higher risks.

This illustrates the complex trade-offs that fishers make as they balance expected returns, risks, participation, and constraints throughout their fishing year. Each fisherman, fishery, and region is influenced by a unique set of drivers.

“There are other incentives driving fishing behavior beyond just safety,” said Pfeiffer, citing the structure of the fishery and the fact that fishermen may fish in multiple fisheries throughout the year. “However, knowing more about how fishermen react to management actions like catch shares can improve future policies.”