"The Deadliest Catch" might be about to get a little less deadly. Battling the high seas and fighting the treacherous conditions in order to land a haul and make it all worthwhile, the daring exploits of fishermen make it one of the most dangerous jobs to do. But a new study has found that such risky behavior by fishermen hunting in the North Pacific for the sablefish, also known as black cod, has steeply declined. It seems that by altering how the fish stocks are managed, the trade-off between catch size and safety has been reduced.
Normally, the researchers found that traditional management of fisheries promoted risky behavior by the fishermen. By limiting the vessels to a certain number of days they are allowed to fish, it encouraged the boats to be launched around-the-clock regardless of weather conditions, as multiple vessels chased the same schools of fish. These rules also promoted behavior in which fishermen were more likely to overload their boats and ignore maintenance problems in a bid to boost their catch and its value.
This competitive style of fishing, in which crews would in effect race each other to the most productive regions, encourages the boats to launch in terrible weather conditions, which in turn obviously increases the chance of accidents. In fact, from 2000 to 2009, severe weather contributed to four out of five fatal fishing accidents that occurred on the West Coast. It is also part of the reason why commercial fishing has an average fatality rate 30 times that of the U.S. average.
But the researchers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) looked at how the fisherman acted once the sablefish fishery had adopted a “catch shares management” system. This method changed the incentives for the fishermen, giving each vessel rights to a specific share of the allowable catch within the fishery. This meant that the boats could choose when and where to fish their share, meaning that fewer of them chose to leave port during the most stormy of days. The researchers found that the number of fishing trips taken on the highest wind days dropped by an impressive 79 percent, and this corresponded to a reduction of safety incidents by a massive 87 percent.
“When fishermen have to compete for fish they can't make a rational trade-off in terms of safety,” explained Lisa Pfeiffer, who coauthored the study looking into the change in fisheries management published in PNAS. “Any delay, whether it's because of the weather or any other reason, results in the fish being taken by someone else. Catch shares provides the flexibility for the fishermen to make a rational trade-off in terms of risk and reward, instead of being compelled to fish whatever the conditions.”
The NOAA hopes that by adopting the same management technique in other fisheries, they will be able to solve many of the problems associated with the competitive system currently in place and as such reduce the number of injuries, pollution events, vessel losses, search and rescue missions, and deaths caused by dangerous fishing.
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