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The Fallacies of ITQs


Individual Transferable Quotas (ITQs), also known as Individual Fishing Quotas (IFQs), are catch-share programs, fishery management systems that privatize fishing rights, setting a Total Allowable Catch, dividing it up and giving quotas to fishers, usually based on historical catch records. These quotas can be traded by the recipients, either leased or sold. These systems, effectively privatizing the ocean's resources, are being touted as a solution to solving the world's fisheries crises, a panacea for the problem of overfishing, by economists, governments and the World Bank, through its Global Partnership for Oceans. Despite their growing popularity, voices of dissent are arising from academics, environmentalists and human-rights activists. Seth Macinko, an associate professor in the Department of Marine Affairs at the University of Rhode Island, is one of them.


Before becoming an academic, Macinko used to fish commercially in Alaska, and remembers when he began hearing about individual catch programs in 1980. Since then, interest has built worldwide, and now, he says, it's the reigning orthodoxy in fisheries management. "The logic is that ownership creates stewardship," he said. "But they're confusing management with ownership. Under any ownership regime you still have to manage wisely."


The specter of environmental collapse is so large, Macinko said, that no-one is questioning the ideology, just grasping at this one solution, one he believes is deeply flawed. "Recently, proponents of ITQs have been trying to convince the public that this isn't privatization," he said. "The problem with this argument is that for 60 years the theory behind the system has been built entirely on an appeal to private property rights, and in their own words is an ‘outright privatization of the oceans.'"


Governments are effectively giving a public resource away for free and turning it into a private property right, particularly scandalous when so many of them are applying sweeping cuts in the name of austerity. "You're stealing from the future," said Macinko. "All future fishermen will have to pay for these rights. They're paying the people we gave them to for free."


When the Conservative government in the United Kingdom tried to introduce a bill transferring ownership of vast tracts of public owned forestland to the private sector in 2011, there was a huge outcry, eventually forcing the government to do a U-turn and drop its plans. Macinko says there has been little such public protest anywhere in the world about the similar privatization of fishing rights, except for a campaign organized by university students in Chile. "We think about fisheries differently," he said. "We wouldn't stand for it with oil or mining."


While Macinko admits there are good things about any program that relies on conservatively set quotas, "that doesn't mean you have to give the rights away. And if you really believed ownership was the key, you would prohibit leasing. But no systems I know of do that, because economists believe in the free market." As a result, rights are getting concentrated in fewer and fewer hands and being transferred out of small rural communities. "You see this pattern around the world," said Macinko. "The programs are designed to remove vessels. Transferable rights lead to consolidation as the small operators sell to the bigger ones. In the first year of ITQs being introduced to the Alaskan king crab fishery, the number of vessels fell from 250 to under 80." But getting rid of small vessels does not mean removing catching capacity. "In Denmark, they just reinvested in fewer, larger, more technologically sophisticated fish-catching machines," said Macinko.


He believes the solution would be a catch-share program based on public ownership. Instead of giving away catch quotas in perpetuity, for free, they could be sold on a royalty basis for three to five years. "They say they don't want to charge fishermen, but with the current system they're giving the rights to a select group, who are then charging fishermen," he said. Instead of central government, the rights could be held at a local government or community level. With public ownership, there would be no concentration, as the communities could determine how much any one individual or company could lease, and rights would not be transferrable, meaning more social responsibility. There would be more opportunity for broad public policy, for example, "if you didn't want large vessels you could impose that limit." In the end, he said, "it should be for society to decide what it wants, instead of putting blind faith in market forces."


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