The story of overfishing is old by now. Commercial fishing of North Atlantic Cod, once a bedrock of New England’s economy, collapsed along with the fishery in the mid-1990s. The same story played out on the West Coast in 2008, when the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) declared a “fishery failure” for Chinook salmon. Recently, government regulators, non-profits, and fishermen themselves have turned to “catch share” programs to implement conservation measures. Guided by regulations from the Magnuson-Stevens Act, the thought is that if enough fish are left in the water to reproduce, they can keep the species alive, and (hopefully) replenish numbers closer to the fisheries’ historic strength. That sets the stage for conflict with fishermen, who suddenly have a cap on their income.

responsible ocean management

In just six years, the population of West Coast salmon swimming upriver to spawn dropped by more than 90 percent, leading officials to take the drastic measure of canceling salmon fishing season altogether. Prohibiting all commercial fishing of an entire species is a dramatic step, something the government admitted after making its decision about Chinook salmon. More often, governments enact programs that limit the number of a particular species of fish that are caught each year.

Related: Report shows that fishermen in the U.S. lose $1 billion in wasted catch every year

As with all public policy and regulation, the devil is in details. Where I live, on the Gulf of Mexico, catch shares focused on the commercially- and recreationally-popular red snapper have drawn both praise and sharp criticism. Overfished since the 1980s, red snapper have made an incredible comeback since lawsuits forced drastic conservation limits, one element of which included commercial fishermen voting to implement a catch share program in 2007.

As time wears on and the details of the management plan have been revised, it’s stoked controversy among regulators and fishermen of all stripes. With a new rule drawing particular ire, the fight to save the red snapper is a great example of what can go right and wrong with catch shares.

commercial fishing boat

How catch shares work

Most catch share programs operate on principles similar to those proposed for cap-and-trade legislation used for carbon pollution. Each year, the government sets a quota on how many fish can be caught. Then, certain fishermen are awarded a piece of that pie. Usually, they then get the leverage to manage the market however they like. Rather than have strict fishing seasons, fishermen can operate year round, and they can also collude harvest times that ensure the fish fetch a higher price. Like cap-and-trade, fishermen can sell their portion of the quota to others. The idea is that catch shares harness economic principles and use the benefits of market competition to keep the fishery and its fishing industry alive and healthy.

Related: 35 Facts that will make you never want to eat fish again

Scientists have cataloged lots of environmental benefits of the policy. In the Gulf, strong compliance with the program has helped the red snapper rebound. Since 2007, it has regained more than 60 percent of its population. There have also been economic rewards. Red snapper are fetching higher prices: up to 17 percent more than before the quota took effect, according to the Pew Environment Group, even though fewer fishermen are making fewer landings.

Keys to success

At their heart, catch share programs are about conservation, both for ecological and economic reasons. Finding a balance between the two can be tricky. Successful programs make conservation-not profit-making-the priority, which means taking into account more than just a simple commercial catch limit.

In the Gulf, unsustainable fishing practices killed many red snapper as bycatch, the unintentional fish of other species caught as part of normal operations. Red snapper were not only the direct victims of bycatch (historically by shrimpers), but suffer when other species they depend on for food or habitat health are caught and discarded by fishermen targeting red snapper. Encouraging or mandating sustainable fishing practices, like banning certain types of nets, can reduce this problem. Since the red snapper catch share program started, there’s been a 50 percent reduction in waste of marketable fish.

catch shares

It’s also crucial to remember that catch shares themselves are not a panacea. In fact, they can only work when implemented in conjunction with other conservation management strategies. Take, for instance, the insidious problem of habitat destruction. Red snapper live along coral reefs and other structures in shallow waters. As these ecologically critical structures are damage-often by boats anchors, fishing gear and pollution-the red snapper population could suffer, even with the best catch share program in place. Without taking these other issues into account, catch shares can be doomed to fail.

Catch shares pick winners and losers

Sadly, catch shares inherently divide fishermen into haves and have-nots. Initial quota allocations often go to people and companies that were already fishing, endowing them with a huge benefit for getting in the game early. As red snapper limits were set and reduced in the Gulf, small-scale fishermen often bore the brunt of the cost of managing the catch.

Related: Leonardo DiCaprio pledges $7 million toward ocean conservation projects

Since the advent of the program, the number of entities-companies and private fishermen-in the industry is down 39 percent. Many of these are small fisherman, who often cannot make the economics work with the low number of allowable catch. While, in theory, any fisherman can purchase the rights to a larger catch, it’s mostly big companies with the means to do so. The Magnuson-Stevens Act touches on this issue by preventing any one company from owning too much of the quota, but it doesn’t ensure than any type or size of fishing operation-large-scale corporation or small, family-owner-doesn’t get a disproportionate amount.

commercial fishing regulations

These tensions set up inevitable conflicts within the industry and between fishermen and regulators. Last year, the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council passed a new rule ostensibly aimed at protecting smaller private and charter operators. Known as “Amendment 40,” the plan created “sector separation,” which guarantees a certain portion of each year’s catch goes to charter operators, increasing access for non-boat owners to the fishery and, regulators hope, ensuring more accurate counts and better compliance with the program.

But the rule has drawn fire from all sides, particularly individual anglers. Many worry the rule will reduce opportunities for recreational anglers, which has sparked a backlash from both companies and groups representing anglers.

Related: Bycatch: There’s more than just your seafood on the line

Amid the controversy, it’s critical to remember why we enact catch shares at all. Sure, as environmentalists, we want to protect our natural world and limit the damage humans do to fragile ecosystems. But in the long run (and for species like the red snapper, the short run too) catch shares can help fishermen. Without broad regulation, our oceans are victims of the “tragedy of the commons.”

No individual fisherman can see the impact their large catch has on the whole system. When we’re allowed to use technology and ingenuity to scoop up as many fish as possible, eventually there are no fish left. Fisherman have already fished many of themselves and their neighbors out of work. Catch shares can’t restore the heyday of commercial fishing, when stocks were plentiful for all, but they can help keep the industry alive. Not everybody wins. But if we stand by and do nothing, we all lose.

Aaron Viles is a Senior Grassroots Organizer who works with citizen authors on Care2’s ThePetitionSite.com to create petitions that will win concrete victories for the environment, and other progressive causes. Prior to Care2, he spent decades working within the non-profit environmental advocacy field for folks such as the Gulf Restoration Network, U.S. Public Interest Research Group, and Faithful America. He also serves as a volunteer leader for the Sierra Club and the Dogwood Alliance.

Images via Shutterstock (1, 23, 4, 5).