After years of changing regulations and low commercial blue crab catches, Maryland may be edging toward a new individual quota management structure to stabilize its most valuable Bay fishery.
The possible "catch shares" program would assign individual watermen with a guaranteed portion of each year's harvest.
Under the current system, watermen compete with each other to catch as many crabs as possible, working within a maze of regulations that tell them where they can fish and on what days and during what times. Under a catch shares program, crabbers would be free to fish when and how they choose as long as they do not exceed their quota.
If such a change happens, Maryland's blue crab fishery would join a small but growing number of fishing systems that use a tradable, quota-based management program to oversee the fishery.
Such a structure had been floated before, but was poorly received by watermen.
Interest grew after Maryland and Virginia requested disaster status for the blue crab fishery in 2008 and imposed controversial new regulations to sharply restrict catches. The new regulations sparked a contentious battle between watermen and fishery managers in Maryland.
"We all started to look for other ways to do business," said Lynn Fegley, assistant director of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources Fisheries Service.
Watermen, who before had shown no interest in a transferable quota system, are also willing to take a new look.
"We are exploring the whole thing so we have a better idea of whether we want it, don't want it, or what part of it might work for us," said Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association. "So we're not just drawing a line in the sand saying we don't want it.
"The way I look at it, we've got to make some drastic changes or we'll be out of business in 10 year's time anyway," Simns said. "Catch shares may not be the answer, but we've got to do something."
Using fishery disaster funds from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and administered through its Chesapeake Bay Office, the state began working with the Environmental Defense Fund, a national conservation organization that has advocated catch shares, to facilitate discussions between watermen and managers.
Last fall, the EDF organized a trip that took watermen and fisheries officials to British Columbia to meet fishermen and discuss their experience with catch shares. Earlier this year, another group went to the Gulf Coast, where a catch shares program was implemented for red snapper in 2007, to meet with fishermen.
One of those making the Gulf Coast trip was John Shockley, a third-generation waterman who also operates a carry-out seafood restaurant in Salisbury with his father. Before going, he said he saw "no possibility" that a catch shares program would work for blue crabs in the Chesapeake.
But after meeting with Gulf Coast fishermen who discussed the transition to catch shares in the grouper and red snapper fisheries, Shockley changed his mind.
"Catch shares actually turned things around for them," he said. "Even some of the guys who were very skeptical in the beginning were made believers in the end."
He learned that red snapper fishermen are spending less time, catching more fish and making more money since switching to a catch share system in 2007. In fact, Shockley came back believing that not just blue crabs, but also the striped bass and oysters fisheries, should be converted to catch shares programs.
A catch share program divides the total allowable catch in a fishery into shares. These shares are typically allocated based on historical participation in the fishery and assigned to individuals, cooperatives, communities or other entities who are then allowed to fish up to their assigned limit. Usually, shares can be bought and sold.
Under traditional management programs, a total catch limit is established, but not allocated to individuals. As a result, fishermen often race each other to catch as many fish as they can before the total limit is reached.
That often increases their expenses as fishermen use more boats and gear than would otherwise be necessary in an attempt to maximize their catch. It can also result in too many fish reaching the market at the same time, possibly causing a glut that depresses prices and increases spoilage and waste. And, such fishing systems also encourage people to fish in bad weather when it's not safe.
Although about 300 fisheries around the world use catch shares, there are only about a dozen in the United States. That could change.
NOAA in December released a draft national policy that encourages the use of catch shares as a management tool to end overfishing while saving fishing jobs and maintaining fishing communities.
"We find the science is compelling that catch shares help to restore the ecosystems and get fisheries on a path to profitability and sustainability," NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco said at a news conference announcing the policy.
Catch shares can have downsides. The ability to buy and sell shares of the fishery opens the door to the total catch being consolidated into the hands of a few people or corporations, shutting others out and dealing a devastating blow to fishing communities. It can be difficult for new people to buy their way into the fishery.
Some recreational fishing groups contend that catch shares essentially privatize a public resource by guaranteeing commercial operations an ongoing share of the fishery.
Proponents say those problems can be minimized with a well-designed program that takes into account the needs of the stock as well as those of the fishermen.
"Our experience is that a catch shares program works best when it's developed and designed by the industry and supported by the government agency," said Tom Grasso, senior adviser in the EDF's Oceans Program. "So this is as much in the hands of the industry as it is anyone else's. And it has to be something that they really want to do, to be successful."
What makes the blue crab fishery attractive for such a management system is the annual blue crab winter dredge survey, a remarkably precise indicator of blue crab abundance.
Survey results allow scientists to accurately estimate the number of crabs that could be caught while leaving enough to maintain the population at healthy levels. That makes the task of setting an annual quota that maintains the health of the stock relatively straightforward.
The difficult part is determining how to transition into a catch shares fishery. Rules would have to be devised to determine how the catch would be divided among licensed fishermen. That would likely be based at least in part on past catches, but other factors could come into play as well.
"With catch shares, there are people who are going to benefit, and there are other people who are really going to get hurt," Shockley said.
In other catch share fisheries, people with small quotas typically sell out to larger operators, ultimately reducing the number of participants, making the overall fishery more efficient. But social issues may be part of the equation, too. If the fishery consolidates too much, it could also jeopardize the survival of fishing communities.
One challenging aspect for the blue crab fishery is that it has thousands of either full-time or part-time participants. Most fisheries that transitioned to some form of catch shares have had fewer fishermen involved.
As a result, if a transition is made to a catch shares fishery, it would likely occur over many years.
"The longer the better," said Steve Early, assistant director of the DNR fisheries service. "It is not something you want to churn out overnight. And it is not something that you can have all the several thousand watermen in the blue crab fishery participate in directly. So you have to figure out a mechanism for representation, and that can be a difficult issue. It is something the watermen need to figure out."
Besides setting the overall catch limit, the state would need to set regulations to control things such as the bycatch of other species. And methods would need to be developed to monitor the catch to ensure compliance with the quota-effective monitoring is a critical element for individual quota systems, and one that can hike administrative costs. But overall, watermen would be much freer to choose when and how they wanted to catch crabs.
"Once we say this is how much you can harvest, arguably it should be the fishermen's decision on how that gets harvested, not ours," Fegley said. "They're the businessmen."
Shockley said that in the gulf, catch shares allowed fishermen to become better businessmen. Instead of competing, they were now working together to market red snapper as a renewable resource that comes from a sustainable fishery. Because the catch is spread out, restaurants are more inclined to put it on the menu because they know it will be available.
"Instead of everyone being in competition against one another, we would all be partners," he said. "We don't have to think so much about outdoing the guy in the boat alongside of us. We can team up and think about marketing."
Virginia transformed its commercial striped bass fishery to an individual transferable quota system-a form of catch shares-in the late 1990s. Each of the more than 400 watermen who participate in the fishery is given an individual quota derived from the state's total allocation from the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which they can buy and sell.
Fishermen get tags to mark the fish they catch; the number of tags they get is based on their quota, and all fish sold must be tagged. That helps make the program self-enforcing, said Mike Johnson of the Virginia Marine Resource Commission. "Their quota is based on Virginia's quota. If Virginia goes over its quota and we get penalized, then their quota goes down. They have a vested interest in it."
Rob O'Reilly, a fisheries manager with the VMRC, said it may also consider some kinds of rights-based fishery for blue crabs in the future. But he noted that the transition to an individual quota system in the striped bass fishery came after the fishery recovered. Changing management systems with a fishery where the population is unstable-as is the case with blue crab-could hamper the new management scheme by requiring sharply different year-to-year catch limits while watermen are still trying to adjust to it.
"When you have a baseline of productivity or stability in the stock, it gives you a little more flexibility in management options," O'Reilly said. "It's almost like you want to hit some new baseline of improved stock health before you embark on that type of approach."