An old saw in the column-writing business maintains that if you manage to simultaneously peeve people at both ends of the political spectrum, you must be doing something right.

Story by Don Cayo, the Vancouver Sun, Nov. 27, 2009.

So too, I suppose, when both sides in a polarized debate cite your analysis to bolster their dug-in positions.

Thus Vancouver-based Ecotrust should feel chuffed at the reaction to its recent report on ITQs — the individual transferable quotas that are being touted as a fish management alternative to commercial licences. Judging from blogs I’ve found, both greenies and the property rights crowd hold it up as vindication of the irreconcilably opposite positions they’ve taken all along.

I was an early advocate of ITQs, writing 12 or 15 years ago about their potential as a management tool.

Let me be clear that — and here, I assume, I’ll irk some left-leaning readers — I still have quite a bit of time for the concept. But — and now I expect to raise hackles on the right — I also have time for the specific and serious criticisms in the Ecotrust report. And I think when it’s read without an ideological lens to blur the bits a reader doesn’t want to acknowledge, it’s real thrust is somewhere in the middle.

B.C. makes a good case study because, with three-quarters of our commercial fishery managed with ITQs, some since the 1990s, we’re into it more heavily and we’ve been at it longer than most other fishing regions.

ITQs’ key appeal is that they can end the race to resources — the mad, dangerous dash to be first to land the biggest share of the total quota — that characterizes the traditional fishery. Benefits are supposed include:

  • No need to over-invest in gear to better the odds of winning the race.
  • Better prices when fishermen know what their share of the catch will be and can wait for the best market conditions.
  • No pressure to fish in storms.
  • More focus on conservation when fishermen’s interest in the health of the stocks trumps instant profit.
  • Less financial risk as fishermen can count on their share of the catch.

But according to the Ecotrust study, entitled A cautionary tale about ITQ fisheries, it’s not that simple.

On the success side of the ledger, the policy does end the race and the intense pressure to invest in ever-bigger, ever-faster boats. But overall investment costs shot up thanks to of the skyrocketing cost of quota.

And, the safety record actually got worse. This is in part because many fishermen wait until winter, when prices are usually high, to catch their share, and partly because many vessels have reduced maintenance and crew size because they have to cut most costs in order to pay for quota.

Nor did ITQs create financial security for the fishermen, most of whom can’t afford to buy quota and thus lease it year-to-year. Lease costs are usually set before the price is known, so a price drop is devastating. And, while an ITQ fixes percentage of the total allowable catch for each fisherman, that total fluctuates from year to year, and with it fishermen’s income.

The report notes the introduction of ITQs in some fisheries — although not in all — did improve both the conservation ethic and market values. But it emphasizes that ITQs aren’t the only factor in these better results. Sound science and monitoring are still key.

The biggest eye-opener to me was the negative impact of the ITQs on crews’ earnings. This, I think, is largely a consequence of how they’ve been implemented in B.C.

Here, to a much greater degree than in other places like Atlantic Canada or Alaska, most of the cash benefits go to quota holders. Most of them were given their quota because they had been fishing for a long time before the system was implemented. But most no longer fish. They lease their quota out at prices that range as high as 75 per cent of the landed value of the catch, in the case of halibut.

These high costs, the report says, make B.C. catches uncompetitive with jurisdictions who require their quota holders to fish. Thus, even though the catch may be worth more, pay for the crew has gone down in B.C.

This would have been an easy flaw to avoid, but it isn’t to fix. As Eric Tamm, lead author of the report, noted when we talked, you can’t just suddenly change everything after fishermen and others made their decisions and investments under the old rules.

“What this means,” Tamm said, “is that if you’re going to do it, you should be sure you do it right.”

So there you have it — something for every ideologue. ITQs, done right, can improve fishery management — but they aren’t all that’s needed. Done wrong, they cause new problems.

I wish it were simpler, but I don’t believe it is.

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