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Choosing winners and losers in Alaska’s crab fishery

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Workers unload king crab in Alaska, where a rights-based quota system has transformed how certain crab fisheries operate. (Photo by Design Pics Inc/Alamy Stock Photo)

Managing commercial fishing activity is a complicated job, one in which every small decision can have far-reaching consequences. Whether to regulate fishing based on season, area, or gear type, and whether to allot quotas for fishing activity—and if so, how many, and to whom?—are all decisions prone to triggering unexpected repercussions.

So when the U.S. government decided in 2005 to implement a quota system for select red king and snow crab fisheries in Alaska’s Aleutian Islands and Bering Sea—the same crab fisheries featured in the TV series Deadliest Catch—scientists were watching to see how this new rights-based fishing quota system would impact jobs and earnings.

(Editor’s note: This story was originally published by Hakai Magazine on May 2, 2022. The story and photos are republished here with permission from the original copyright holders.)

Nearly two decades later, scientists led by Joshua Abbott, an economist with Arizona State University, have shown that the quota system brought a dramatic consolidation of the fishing fleet and fewer jobs. The jobs that remain, though, are longer term and offer comparable wages to those that preceded the switch.

The consequences of the quota system are complex, explains Abbott, but he hopes their analysis can help fisheries managers better understand the social and economic impacts of policy decisions.

When the US government implemented the quota system in 2005, it awarded quota shares to fishers based on their catch histories. The shares, which provide exclusive harvest rights to a proportion of each year’s allowable catch, are transferrable, meaning owners can fish their share, lease it, or pool their share with others to save on the high costs of fishing.

It’s a big difference from how the fishery was previously managed, when regulators focused more on controlling the total catch. That approach led to derby-style fishing, where vessels raced into Alaska’s remote and stormy seas during short winter openings. While the money could be good, the frantic fishing came at a high cost in lost lives and lost vessels.

“It was very dangerous,” says Miranda Westphal, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game management biologist for the area. “And it was hard to manage.”

Westphal says that under the old system, with crews fishing as hard and fast as they could, biologists had to track when the total allowable catch had been reached by tallying reports coming in from the fleet over marine radios.

The catch limit approach to regulation also led to incredible waste. When the catch limit was reached and the fishery closed, fishermen would dump their extra catch overboard, with unknown survival rates among these discarded crabs.

By giving fishing crews a longer time to catch their share, the quota system improved safety and decreased waste. But it also had complicated economic impacts, says Abbott. For instance, because quota shares went to those who fished most efficiently, often the operators of larger vessels, it consolidated the crab fleet from over 200 vessels to under 70 today. The fishery now employs fewer people, with smaller operators most likely to have lost their jobs.

But by forcing vessels out, quotas increased the overall profitability of the fishery for those that remained. The lengthened fishing season also enabled vessel owners to spread maintenance and other costs over more fishing days. These and other factors helped create more stable and longer-term jobs than were previously available, Abbott says.

However, average wages for vessel owners, captains, and crews remained stable. This is because a portion of revenue that once went directly to them was redirected to pay owners of the new quota shares, including many who decided to lease their shares rather than fish the shares themselves. A complaint by some is that these so-called armchair fishermen collect revenue without investing in the fishery, says Abbott.

Gabriel Prout, a third-generation Alaska fisherman, knows the impacts of share leasing. Talking by satellite phone from the crab vessel Silver Spray, which was holed up at Saint Paul Island waiting out a blizzard in the Bering Sea, he says that quota lease payments can consume over half of annual profits. Leasing quotas substantially increases the already high costs of fishing, leaving a tighter budget to pay for fuel, bait, repairs, and new gear. “There hasn’t been a new boat built in this fishery in 30 years,” says Prout.

Increasingly, he says, vessel owners are squeezed between the rising costs of maintaining an aging fleet and the expense of leasing shares from people no longer investing in the fishery. The best way to survive, he says, is to buy—not lease—a quota share. But that can be prohibitively expensive, especially as shares continue consolidating through sales, inheritance, and other means.

But Prout also sees the benefits portrayed in Abbott’s research. The quota system “ended the race for fish,” he says, and resulted in a better product because vessels can now stagger deliveries, resulting in less damage and loss.

“It’s a matter of trade-offs,” says Abbott, who hopes his research will improve understanding of the give and take inherent in management decisions.

However, the study comes at a time of increasing peril for the Alaska crab fishery. The red king crab harvest in the Bristol Bay area of the Bering Sea was recently cancelled because of a low population count. For a similar reason, regulators also slashed this winter’s snow crab harvest by 88 percent. The cuts will hit Prout and others hard. Researchers suspect the cause is rapidly warming Bering Sea waters, which likely stress crab populations and allow new predators such as cod to venture into the once-inhospitable area.

Abbott says nothing indicates that the quota system contributed to today’s problems. And while his research is not connected to climate change, he sees quotas as providing a better mechanism for adapting to change than was available in the older derby-style fishery.

“Quotas won’t magically create resiliency in an era of rapid climate change,” he says. “But they represent a mechanism that can facilitate adaptation.”