By Brian Lee Crowley

IN A RECENT interview, Fisheries Minister Robert Thibault had some encouraging things to say about the fishery – namely, that an increasingly valuable fishery should no longer be viewed as a social program which guarantees many people employment insurance benefits, and that the fishery has to have an industrial approach and sustainability if it is to compete internationally. Unfortunately, he then went on to say that the way to achieve these worthy objectives is more of the tired old policies that have failed us so miserably in the past. He wants a “consultative approach to long-term management” that “will give stability to the resource based on sound science.”

But as Jeffrey Simpson points out in a recent column in the Globe, the problem isn’t lack of consultation or science or long-term bureaucratic plans; it is the silly fiction that managing the resource politically via central planning will ever be anything other than an abject failure.

Our politicians control the fish, but don’t benefit from sound management of the resource. Instead, they benefit politically from granting too much access to it. Fish don’t vote, but people in coastal communities do, and the result has consistently been politicized management decisions that favour too many people doing too much fishing.

The most successful fishing nations in the world today, Iceland and New Zealand, both abandoned this approach in the last 20 years. They’ve gone to more property rights based management, where a share of the catch is actually assigned to fishermen before they go out to fish. These tradeable shares, owned by the fishermen, are called individual transferable quotas, or ITQs. According to fisheries analyst Laura Jones, if the science tells us that there’s a hundred million pounds of a particular species available to be caught, and there are a hundred fishermen, you might give each fisherman a million-pound quota and say that’s how much you’re allowed to catch, no more; but you can catch it when, where and how you want.

The evidence of the success of ITQs, in general, is impressive. In New Zealand and Iceland, it is hardly an exaggeration to say that the fisheries have been revolutionized in terms of both resource management and economic performance. Ironically, it is Canadians like Peter Pearse and Tony Scott of UBC who pioneered this approach to fish management and have seen their ideas transform fisheries abroad, but far too little here at home.

ITQs end the destructive “race to fish” that characterizes most of our current fisheries. Fishermen no longer have to race to catch fish at the expense of the other fishermen on the water, because their share of the catch is guaranteed. Less money has to be spent on growing catching power, and finding ways around DFO’s controls on gear. Catching your quota when and where you want means enhanced safety, as fishermen can stay at home if the weather is dangerous, for example. Indeed, quota fishermen are sometimes known as “carpet slipper fishermen” because their working conditions are so good, they can work in their slippers.

Fishermen get better prices for their catch. Quota holders can fish whenever prices are high, and can take more time to clean and handle the fish to enhance their value. Fishermen can earn a much better living, even when catching fewer fish.

Laura Jones, in a book about to be released on property rights in fisheries on Canada’s West Coast, reports that 91 per cent of quota fishermen say they want to continue with the new system, a system that many of them fought against before its introduction. Profitability is up, while conflicts with government regulators have been reduced.

The story is similar in Atlantic Canada, where about 50 per cent of fish landed by value is done under some form of property rights. In one ITQ fishery I know in southwest Nova Scotia, the fishermen volunteered to fish unallocated quota and used the money to finance more and better science so they could better understand the fish stocks in which they have a direct and quantifiable interest.

Creating private property rights in the fishery, incomplete as they may be in Canada, has improved conservation, economic returns from fishing, safety and the standard of living of fishermen, while allowing the industry to internalize the costs of its own science, enforcement and policing. And now fishermen increasingly police each other, because someone overfishing their quota is now stealing from his neighbour’s quota. There is no third-party surveillance system more powerful than this. These are all huge victories.

But the extension of the quota system to new fisheries in Atlantic Canada has slowed markedly in recent years because reform lacks a political champion. If Mr. Thibault is serious about putting fishing and fishing communities on course for prosperity and sustainability, he knows what he has to do.

Brian Lee Crowley is president of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, a public policy think tank in Halifax.