So how does a catch-share system work? First, marine scientists establish a safe level of annual catch for a species or group of species. Then, each individual boat or fleet is granted the right to a percentage of that catch, and they have all year to fish for it. The allowable catch fluctuates from year to year, but the percentages are guaranteed. Fishermen can buy and sell these shares, but no new shares are allowed.
Each share system operates differently, Tromble said, but federal guidelines dictate that anyone who has "substantially participated" in a fishery deserves part of the overall quota and that no individual can have "an excessive share." In the red snapper fishery in the Gulf of Mexico, which switched to a share system on Jan. 1, 2007, managers set quotas based on the 10 best consecutive catches an individual had brought in from 1990 to 2004.
David Krebs, who owns Ariel Seafoods in Destin, Fla., and has been fishing there since 1969, owns almost 6 percent of the gulf's annual red snapper catch, just below the maximum share. Krebs noted that red snapper used to fetch $1.50 a pound dockside and has risen to $4.50 a pound as the fishing pressure has eased. He calls the new system "truly a success story."
"It's the most versatile tool that allows a fisherman to fish when the market needs the fish," Krebs said.