Graying of the Fleet

Twenty-five years ago, there were over 2,000 commercial shrimp boats in Mississippi. Today, that number has fallen to around 200. This trend is not unique to Mississippi: Across U.S. coastlines, commercial fisherfolk are seeing their way of life disappear.

On this episode of Building Local Power, Tim Barrett, a local fisherman in Marshfield, Massachusetts, and Ryan Bradley, of the Mississippi Commercial Fisheries United, guide us through how catch share policies — a set of regulations promoted as beneficial for the environment and for fisheries — have turned the sea into a tradeable and buyable commodity, opening the doors for investment, private equity, and corporations to hoard the right to harvest fish. The ensuing consolidation of the industry is driving up prices for both small-scale fisherfolk and the consumer, and putting countless fisherfolk out of work.

Tim and Ryan explain how we need to reform the nation’s catch policy to build a more equitable and thriving fishing sector where small-scale fisherfolk aren’t the ones being hooked.

Listen to the episode on your favorite podcast platform.

Reggie Rucker: Hello and welcome to Building Local Power. I am your co-host, Reggie Rucker. We are back with episode four for this season, where we are highlighting frontline stories in the fight against monopoly power by talking with people from all over the country who are actively engaging in building more equitable, thriving local economies.
In the last episode, Shad Dasher and Sarah Carden illustrated how small and mid-side farmers across America are going extinct. In this episode, we’re moving off land and into the sea, where two fishermen will explain how private equity is driving small fisherfolk out of the waters. First, let me pass it over to my co-host, who is never fishy and always has the good drip. If you’ve seen her vest game, you know exactly what I’m talking about. It’s Luke Gannon. What’s up Luke?
Luke Gannon: This vest has seven massive pockets. I could put my lures, my hooks, my swivels, bait, even a tackle box in this vest, but let’s get to the guests that are actual fishermen. I am Luke Gannon, and today, Tim Barrett, a commercial fisherman out of Marshfield, Massachusetts, tells his story.
Tim Barrett: I grew up in the town of Marshfield, Massachusetts, and I fish out of a place called Green Harbor. Growing up, I was three or four blocks away from the harbor. My father moved down to the South Shore after World War II, bought a lot of land and worked for Bell Telephone back when there was only one telephone company in North America. One of the first things he did was buy a boat, a pleasure boat, and decided to start to spend time on the water.
From there, Green Harbor is a working harbor. We’re number two in the state for lobster. There’s been, like I say, 400 years of continual fish, seafood being landed here. As soon as I was able to ride a bicycle further than the few blocks that my parents allowed me, sometimes I went over there. Anyhow, I wound up down at the harborfront and the boats … We had a close connection to the ocean here and the boats, the guys fishing, and the work in waterfront really appealed to me.
That being said, we started hauling lobster traps after my brother graduated college, and the situation was that … Actually, my cousin is to blame for this, actually, because he came back from college and said … My brother and he, both at the same time, said, “Well, what are you going to do?” My cousin said, well, I’m going to go lobstering,” and so my brother said, “I’m going to go lobstering too.” There were times where my parents were like, “Go down and help your brother. Go out on the boat with your brother and go help.” I said, “No, I don’t want to go. I don’t want to be a fisherman. It’s smelly. It’s a lot of work.”
I was 10, 11 at the time, but there was a connection to the ocean, and there was a connection to the boats. Quite frankly, the people that were involved in the fishery were the type of people that I found it was a lot of fun to hang around with. Being that age, the fisheries are pretty much the most basic form of capitalism there is. You go out, you hunt together, you grab, get stuff, natural resources, and you bring them back in, and you sell them at the end of the day.
I wound up being more interested in the fisheries, and was lucky enough to be able to know a lot of these people and be a part of the work in waterfront and wound up going to college for it. At the University of Rhode Island, they had a marine fisheries and technology course, which trains you how to do this type of thing. Basically, that’s how it started. There was an ease of operation. I was able to just, I could walk to the harbor in about 20 minutes if I had to.
From there, I had an opportunity to spend time at sea and make money at it at the same time. That’s what brought me into the fisheries. Over the course of a number of years, I’ve tried a lot of different things, and escaped the fisheries a number of different times, but I’d come back to it always.
Luke Gannon: In Marshfield, there’s a Blessing of the Fleet, a lobster festival, and bonfires on the beach. There used to be a waterfront festival, where people would show their fresh catch and sell it to the local folk, but over time, many of these community festivities have come and gone. Nonetheless, its geographic location really characterizes the town’s activities, most of which are centered, in one way or another, around the harbor.
Tim Barrett: The town, it was called the Irish Riviera, Boston Irish, this is where the Boston Irish settled, and this is where they would come down. In the town, not in my lifetime, but we had a casino. We had bowling alleys. When I was growing up, there was a theater and two bowling alleys within a short walk from my house. There’s two marinas in our harbor. There’s a lot of recreational boating that goes out of the harbor. There’s a launching ramp, and an area there. There’s hundreds of people during the weekend now. Growing up, it was a really cool place to hang out. There was always something going on.
Luke Gannon: There’s still a booming business for lobstering in Marshfield, but the groundfishing industry is in decline.
Tim Barrett: The harbor, as far as the fishing industry goes, the harbor is still number two in the state for lobster production. We have 50 full-time lobster boats in the harbor. A lot of those lobster boats, in the wintertime, used to go groundfishing. The lobster fisheries still exist to this day. There is a lot of bluefin tuna fishing that goes on in the harbor. As far as groundfish boats go, myself and my brother are the only ones that still exist in the groundfish fishery in Green Harbor, and that’s down from 20 boats.
Luke Gannon: During Tim’s career, everything from how you buy your boat to procuring a permit to go fish has changed. Over the years, Tim has had to adapt to the ever-changing regulatory system.
Tim Barrett: When I first started, it was as simple as you got a license from the government, be it state and federal, and you went out and fished. It was as easy as that. It was basically open to any type of fishery that you wanted, and be it groundfish, scallops, bluefin tuna, clamming, lobstering, you could get these permits fairly easily. I’ve been a boat owner-operator for about 30 years now.
You could see the change of regulations coming. Regulations were coming in that were being … It was obvious that you had to qualify in order to be a part of the fishery. It came to a point, and I would say this would be about 30 years ago, that you had to commit, had to have a boat and permits to be a part of the future of the fishery, which I did. I bought a boat. I bought a boat from a friend of mine that I knew. That boat, at the time, was 67 years old. It was a boat in somebody’s backyard in New Bedford. It was before catch shares. Catch shares is the keyword, being this is how the fisheries are managed now.
Regulatory-wise, things have changed. We started in what was called days at sea, and days at sea, you were allotted a certain amount of days at sea per permit. Then you could also lease days at sea from other people, which typically would cost anywhere between 50 and $150 dollars a day. Then that changed into catch shares. Catch shares came about where they issued each permit a quota based on a qualifying period. You then would be fishing on a quota. If you didn’t have enough quota, then you would be leasing quota from other people.
I have to inform the government more than 48 hours in advance, 48 hours is the minimum, that I intend to go fishing. There’s a pre-trip notification service. You sign up. You say, “I intend on fishing at this time.” They will then assign you an observer, or not. At this point, we are at 100% observer-coverage in the Northeast groundfishery. Every single day I go fishing, every single day I go to work, I have an observer, a Federal Fisheries observer that comes and monitors. Comes with me on the boat, and makes the trip with me, and monitors my … They take data, and they record discards. They record how much fuel I use, how much I spent on my sandwich for the day, how big my gear is, how much time I use my gear in the water.
Luke Gannon: These regulatory changes have reshaped the scale, no pun intended, at which fishing businesses can operate. They’ve also transformed the day-to-day outings of local fisherfolk.
Tim Barrett: Now, my boat is a smaller boat, day boat fishing, 42-feet. I don’t stay overnight. It’s a small-scale, local fishery. You show up at the harbor. You find the observer. It’s usually not hard to find in our small harbor, our local neighborhood. Then I have to then go onto a satellite uplink and inform the federal government that I am leaving the dock. Each vessel participating in the groundfishery has a vessel monitoring system, which is essentially an ankle bracelet for the vessel. The vessel’s position, every hour, is recorded. Then we go on the trip.
We’ll go out, and we’ll do our fishing, and we’ll catch whatever we catch. The observer will cover their job, observing whatever they want, recording the catch, recording what we have retained, and recording what we discarded. Then at that point, when I decide to go to leave and go home, I have to inform the government via this system of my intention to land fish. That, essentially, allows enforcement enough time to come and maybe, maybe not observe what I unload at the dock.
I’ll come in and there’ll be local, state, and federal observers, possibly. Sometimes, it’s nobody. Sometimes, it’s one, and every once in a while, you get a trifecta of all the enforcement officials there. I’ll wind up unloading my catch, putting it into my truck, and then I discharge the observer, tie the boat up, and then drive my catch to either New Bedford or Boston, and sell my catch to the local dealers there. Typically, at the end of the day, around 2,000 pounds of fish. Some days have been more. Some days, maybe too many days have been less.
At this point, I then now have to drive my fish to the market, which will be a wholesale market, people that will then move that fish either whole to another company, or one of my dealers will process some of that fish and move the product further down the line, the fileted product further down the line. That fish, it will go locally, some, but it will also … I mean, Chicago, Philadelphia, the West Coast, Florida is not unheard of, and that’s in the groundfishery. That’s typically the day. Then you start gearing up and getting ready for the next trip.
Luke Gannon: Tim’s routine stays relatively consistent, but the price that Tim can sell his fish for has had a sharp decline in the last couple of years.
Tim Barrett: For the last two years, and especially last year, we have been dealing with 1970s prices. The prices have been like 40 cents, 50 cents, 70 cents a pound. We’ve lost the market share. There’s been a decrease, there’s been a 95% decrease in groundfishing boats on the East Coast. We have lost the market share for groundfish, which is being substituted by imported fish, imported fish from other countries, imported fish from other parts of the country. There’s product that will come from Alaska or the West Coast, but a majority of the fish consumed in the United States is foreign import.
Luke Gannon: This sharp decline, due in no small part to corporate consolidation, has driven local fisherfolk out of the business and is taking a toll on the ones who are just trying to break even.
Tim Barrett: We are responsible for accounting for every single pound of fish that we bring onboard our vessel, whether we keep it or not. We have to account for that, and we have to have quota for that at the end of the year. There’s regulatory discards, which if a fish is too small, it has to go back over the side. We are not allowed to keep it. There’s also fish that are not viable and there’s no market for them, so those fish go over the side. We still have to have quota for that. Then there’s also fish that are protected species, which we cannot keep, and those go over the side. That’s called discards. We work very hard to avoid this. We go through a lot of gear modifications. Most people fish in certain areas that they know that they won’t have interactions with these fish. We do the best we can.
Now, as far as all the fishing is concerned, the groundfishery in the United States has never gone over their total allowable catch. Now, the total allowable catch is what the government sets forth for what the fisheries are allowed to catch. Now, however high or low it may be, within the groundfishery, there’s 18 different species that we have to keep track of. We have never gone over the total allowable catch. The United States fishery is the highest sustainable fishery in the world, and it’s also the most regulated fishery in the world.
You can’t cover the whole ocean. The ocean is like a roadmap on the United States. There’s highways, there’s interstates, there’s side roads, and then there’s dirt roads. We never go on the side roads or the dirt roads anymore. Mostly, everybody just stays on the interstate because you don’t have to go outside, and you don’t have to chance wrecking your gear or losing your gear.
Luke Gannon: As Tim has pointed out, the regulatory system has changed fisherfolks’ daily routine. Recently, it has also triggered rapid consolidation in the fishing industry.
Tim Barrett: Catch shares resulted in consolidation. Catch shares has been in effect for 13 years. We warned them that this would happen, and it was designed to greatly reduce the amount of vessels in the fleet, and it has been successful. Catchers came in, and there was a qualifying period of where each individual permit was assigned quota, a certain amount of fish, and that essentially became a tradable commodity. You can lease your fish every year. At the end of the year, you would get that fish back. You could lease it again. It essentially became rights to the resource, rights to the fishery’s resource.
The first few years, everybody just stuck to their own. We all had to form sectors. There’s 13 different sectors on the East Coast. I’m the president of Sector 10. We started with 25 boats. We are now down to two. Most of the people have either gotten out of the fishery, gone on to other fisheries, or have completely left the fisheries. This gave the opportunity for people with investment ability to buy up that quota. To buy up that quota, there’s no regulations on who can buy this quota. There’s a Danish company investment firm called Bregal that has bought half of the groundfisheries quota. We’ve seen half of the quota for the fleet now in the hands of an investment firm. Not a fishing company, not a local company, not a United States company.
Luke Gannon: Tim has now spent much of his life on the waters fishing, and although it hasn’t always been easy, Tim has persisted against the odds. He hopes that consolidation won’t hinder the younger fisherfolk from entering the industry.
Tim Barrett: As a person that tries to stay within the letter of the law, it takes a toll. It takes a toll. I’ve been successful, but there’s a lot of people that will not participate because of that problem, because of the stress that occurs from trying to navigate their way throughout this system. I was lucky in my timing. I bought a vessel. Like I said, it was 67 years old. It wasn’t brand new. I didn’t leverage the house in order to do that. My wife worked as well, and we were able to maintain a life, get our daughter through college.
I tell a lot of people a lot of times, I can’t wait to go back to fishing so I don’t have to work. There’s a number of young fishermen, boat owners who participate in fisheries. A lot of the lobster guys have traded their boats over to their children, and those people would have a future. Those people would have a future and have options other than just the one fishery. I think it’s important for those people to be part of the community still. That would be part of my goal.
I know dozens of people who I started doing business with when I was young, and now their children own the operations. Not only that, but their children’s children, their grandchildren are working in the business as well. Let’s not forget, this is a business. Fishing is a business, and I would love to see people like that have an opportunity to do that, and not have this fishery just age out into nothing. That’s one of the biggest threats that we have right now.
Luke Gannon: Now, before we let Tim go, for all of our water lovers, we had to get a few ocean-specific book recommendations, and he had no shortage.
Tim Barrett: Sea Wolf by Jack London. Captains Courageous by Rudyard Kipling. Overfishing by Ray Hilborn. Ray Hilborn is a scientist who does a lot of work in the fisheries and explains things like overfishing. Those are the books I read over, and over again. Moby Dick, I always work through that. You can always open up a page or two of that.
Luke Gannon: What a pleasure it was having you on the show, Tim. Thank you for your story and your expertise. For the second half of this episode, we invited Ryan Bradley of the Mississippi Commercial Fisheries United, who will dive into how private equity is gobbling up the fishing industry. Before that, I’m going to toss it over to the vegetarian of this show, who probably hasn’t eaten fish in years, decades. I’m working on expanding my time aperture. Reggie Rucker.
Reggie Rucker: This is true. I’m aging myself, but you are right on this one. It has, indeed, been decades. Normally, we take this time during the break to ask for a donation, and even if it’s just a small one, $5, $10, really, any amount goes a long way in helping us do the important work of advocating for folks like Tim and the generations after him that we need if we’re going to sustain really vibrant, local communities and our democracy. If you can make that donation, please head over to\donate and contribute whatever small amount you can. We are truly, truly grateful. Today, I really want to focus on one thing you can do that would cost you nothing. Right now, and I mean that, as soon as I’m done here, pause this episode and share this, or another favorite Building Local Power episode with a friend or family member, and encourage them to listen.
If you share this with just one person you’re close to, and then they share it with one person, and maybe they share it with one person, that’s how change happens. That’s how we can start changing the minds of citizens, and voters, and ultimately, the policymakers who we need to create the correct policies so the Tims and Marshfield, Massachusetts, all over the country just have a fair shot at getting to thrive. That’s all we’re asking for is a fair chance, instead of privileging these corporate giants. That’s our break. Pause this episode, share it with someone you’re close to, and encourage them to listen, and then come right back for the interview. Thanks so much.
Luke Gannon: Thank you so much, Ryan Bradley, for joining the show today. We are so happy that you are here, and to talk about the fishing industry. I first want to start off this conversation by setting the stage. A lot of Americans eat fish. In fact, many Americans who don’t eat meat still eat fish. Beyond going to our grocery store and buying the Alaskan salmon or the farmed halibut, we don’t really know where our fish comes from. Can you start off by telling us, what does the fishing industry generally look like in America, and where does most people’s fish come from?
Ryan Bradley: Seafood’s a pretty big deal in America. Our entire country is surrounded by thousands of miles of coastline and lots of oceans on our East, and our West Coast, and our Gulf Coast, and that presents lots of opportunity for fishing and seafood access for America. We have several states that are bigger players than others, but the biggest ones that come to mind is, like you mentioned, Alaska is a major, probably the top-producing seafood state, a wide variety of seafood that they produce, mostly wild-caught.
Louisiana is the second biggest, as far as I understand. Louisiana has a lot of coastline. They’re down here in the Gulf of Mexico, and we have the mighty Mississippi River dumping nutrient-rich waters into the Gulf of Mexico, which all that nutrients provides a lot of abundance for marine life in the region, so they produce a lot of seafood down in Louisiana. Then all across, from California to Oregon, throughout the Gulf, and up towards the East Coast, especially in Massachusetts, those areas produce a ton of seafood as well. A lot of that is wild-capture. Historically, it’s been a wild-capture fisheries.
We’re seeing this trend, this push from the government, from the U.S. authorities to push this idea of farm-raised aquaculture. Seafood is a growing trend. The aquaculture has a lot of potential, but it does not produce nowhere near the volume as our wild-capture fisheries. The aquaculture tends to be more stable, more consistent, but nothing compares with the volume of our wild-capture fisheries.
That being said, American consumers are still consuming far more seafood than what we produce here in America. I’ll say that to say this, is shrimp is the number one consumed seafood item in America. Domestically, we only produce around 6 to 7% of all the shrimp consumed in America domestically. That leaves a large portion of seafood that’s imported into America, especially when dealing with shrimp. There’s a number of fish that’s imported into America. About the only thing that’s not imported into America that I’m aware of is oysters. Oysters is really one of the few species that are completely domestic production for a number of different reasons.
Reggie Rucker: Actually, I want to pick up on this wild-capture question versus the aquafarming question. You mentioned the wild-capture is a more sustainable way, at least compared to landfarming, this wild-capture is sustainable. Does that sustainability element change when we start thinking about the aquafarming? Does that calculation change, that you’re aware of?
Ryan Bradley: Yeah, that’s a good question. I think that it’s hard for me to say that it’s less or more sustainable, specifically. I think that there’s a lot more inputs that go into aquaculture, whether it’s sea-based farming or land-based farming, the electricity use, the energy use in transiting out to these farms. Then you have to feed all of this stuff something, and so then there’s the extraction of the … Usually, it’s the extraction of wild, bait fish and whatnot that’s processed into fishmeal to feed some of these farms, and so there’s some issues around that. It’s hard to definitively say which is which, but we do know there’s a lot more inputs that go into all of the farming. Very similar to a land-based agriculture farm.
Reggie Rucker: Yeah, yeah. That makes sense, that makes sense. Now, going back. At the end of your first answer, you were telling us about what the demands are for seafood and how locally, domestically, we’re not able to keep up with that demand, and so a lot of this is imported. I know there’s this phrase that I’ve been hearing on this topic of a seafood deficit. Is that what we’re referring to here when we’re talking about this supply and demand mismatch?
Ryan Bradley: Yeah, absolutely. The seafood deficit, this first … It’s been the issue for quite some time over the last few decades that that deficit has been growing. It really came to light in the last presidential administration and the previous secretary of commerce. They had a really big push around the seafood deficit. Their solution for the deficit was to expand domestic aquaculture. I don’t know that that’s the correct avenue to go, but it’s certainly an option.
How did we get to this seafood deficit? We’ve got, America’s completely covered in water. Besides our Northern border, we have all these oceans around us. How did we get to a point where we’re seafood deficit? Well, one, Americans love seafood, so we’re consuming a lot of seafood. That’s one thing, but we’re still importing a lot. Part of that, a pretty big part of that is that these wild-capture fisheries that you’ve heard me talk about have been under attack for the last several decades. A lot of negative perceptions have been tossed at the wild-capture fisheries.
I’m from Mississippi. I can’t speak to every region in the country, but I see it firsthand in Mississippi. We look at the data, who was licensed to commercial fish over a longer period of time. If you look back 25 years, we’ll see in Mississippi that we had over 2,000 commercial shrimp boats operating just in the State of Mississippi. That’s how many … We have this license data. This is data that shows us how many vessels were licensed, historically, that do this type of fishing.
If we look at the numbers today, we have less than 200 shrimping vessels, so we’ve fallen from 2,000 to 200. When we look into these issues, what we really look at … America’s fisheries, our national standards for governing our fisheries, the laws, which it goes back to what’s called the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act. That’s the federal law that governs our national fisheries, and that sets the standards that individual states follow. A lot of times, our states mirror the federal standards, but any standards they have, one of the standards is that they must follow the best available science. When we have a lack of science, then things can go sideways.
Luke Gannon: Wow, very interesting. Yeah, so Ryan, I was recently reading one of NAMA’s reports on the consolidation of the fishing industry, and they made this metaphor about what’s happening to the fishing industry is what has happened to the agriculture on land industry in America, which is the privatization of it and the consolidation of it, that big companies are just gobbling up land, and that is now happening on the ocean. Can you explain this? Can you expand on this? What does the privatization of the ocean look like?
Ryan Bradley: Yeah, yeah, sure, absolutely. Every region’s different. I’ll open by saying that, but historically, our commercial fishing industry, our seafood industry has been comprised of primarily independent owner-operators, small businesses. This is your mom and pops, your multigenerational families that operate fishing vessels, or fishing companies, seafood companies. Some of them are corporations, but small corporations. That has historically been the makeup of our fisheries. This is your great-grandfathers. I’m a fifth-generation fisherman. My great-grandfather started out on a vessel shrimping and oystering. My grandfather got into it, and on down the line.
That knowledge is passed from generation to generation, and that has been how these fisheries operate. This is something that’s inherited and passed along from generation to generation through on the water experience, and so it’s never been a really ripe industry for privatization and corporatization, I guess you could say. However, what we’ve seen over the past 20 years is an explosion in America of a management scheme, policy ideas that are referred to as catch shares, and this is the privatization of our oceans.
The way these catch share programs begin and the way they operate, they were originally, I think New Zealand had one of the first catch shares, and Canada has had some before they’ve taken hold in America. Now we have, I think, 17 or 18 different catch share programs around the country now in the United States. The way these programs start is they come to the fishing communities, and maybe a fishery that is struggling with its biomass or struggling in what’s called, they used to term the race to fish. This is back before these management schemes come into place, they would essentially, fishermen were derby fishermen. They would open a season for a specific species. The managers would say, “Okay. We’re going to allow you to catch X amount of pounds of this fish this season.” Whoever caught it first, caught it, and they were the beneficiaries of that fishery.
Well, what that led to is sometimes, that would force these fishermen to get out and fish in bad weather. Boats would sink, and then the race to fish, because it’s who catches it first gets that fish, there would be a glut of the marketplace, so a lot of fish would be hitting the market all at once. This would lead to a devaluation of that fish and make it very difficult for these seafood markets to push that product out to the American consumer all at once. These catch shares were designed as a way, as a management scheme to address some of those issues, the race to overfish, and the safety at sea concerns, vessels sinking, having to fish during bad weather, that type of thing.
Well, that’s how it was sold to the American public, to the fishermen. They would come into specific fisheries in specific regions and they would say, “Hey, let’s talk about these catch share opportunities. Let’s adjust this management scheme to catch sharing.” What that essentially means is they would look at the historic participation of a given fishery. They would look at which fishermen landed which species, and they would have an idea, “Okay. This fisherman landed so much. This fisherman landed so much.” They would start to break that down into a percentage.
Eventually, they would issue, when they transitioned to these catch share fisheries, they would issue shares, also called quota, and it’s sometimes called individual fishing quota. Sometimes it’s called individual transferrable quota. There’s a few different names that they give it, but essentially it’s a share or a percentage of the allowed catch for that species. The fishermen that qualified, they had historic catch, and they could prove that they were a historic participant in the fishery. From then on, each year, they would get an annual allocation based off their historic catch or the share percentage that they’d been issued by the federal government.
Over time, these programs have been eroded. They start out for the fishermen. There’s a lot of benefits in it, and these quota shares are allowed to be traded. In many of these programs, they’re allowed to be traded just like shares on the stock market. Anybody can buy them. They can sell them outright, or they can lease their annual catch to other fishermen. Say your boat breaks down, you can’t fish. Well, you can lease that quota out to another fisherman, allow them to catch that quota for you. There’s a lot of good things that come with that, however, the devil’s in the details.
What happens is these programs are originally set up for the fishermen. You have to be a fisherman to access the quota, to receive initial shares. What we see, in a number of fisheries, they put sunset provisions in these programs where, after so many years, the requirements for them to have substantial participation in these fisheries … For example, you have to have a commercial fishing boat. You need to have a commercial fishing permit to maintain these shares. They let those provisions go by the wayside, and they’d fall off, and that essentially opens the door for what is being called public participation. This is where they let anybody in America … That’s the law now is that it needs to be anybody in America, and we’re seeing even that’s been subverted to allow different entities from different countries come in and buy these shares.
Now, anybody in America can buy these shares, regardless of if they have any ties to the local communities or any historic participation in the fishery. Here we have a program that was set up that was for local fishermen in a particular region. They were issued shares based on their historic participation. After a number of years went by, almost by design, they allow these provisions that tie that quota or their shares to a community or to a fishery to go by the wayside, to fall off.
This opens the door for speculative investment, and so what we’ve seen is this really explosion of speculative investment, investors, Wall Street-style investors, private equity, a number of different large corporations coming into these fisheries and purchasing these quota shares, owning essentially the right to harvest fish. These catch shares are the right to harvest fish, so they’re purchasing these rights to harvest fish and leasing … They have no capacity to actually go harvest that fish. They just own it on paper, and then they’re turning around and leasing that right back to fishermen who do have the capacity to go and harvest that fish with a vessel and a permit.
What we see is these really big inefficiencies that are being created in these fisheries. When I say that, it’s really driving the price of fish up for the average consumer. It’s driving the price of access to go and harvest that fish for the local fishermen. A lot of times, what we’re seeing now in many of these instances in these fisheries that are operated like this is that the investor is pulling more profit than the actual fishermen, substantially more profit than the actual fishermen.
I’m in the Gulf of Mexico region. I actually participate in one of these fisheries. It’s the Gulf of Mexico Reef Fishery is how that’s referred to. They have several species that are managed under catch shares. The first that was implemented in the Gulf was red snapper, which is a very popular, controversial species. Then several years later, they followed up with a grouper individual quota catch share program, and that covers almost a dozen different species of grouper. Then at the same time, they implemented a tilefish catch share program with three different species of tilefish.
The biggest problem that we’re having in these catch shares down here in the Gulf is with the red snapper. Super abundant fish, very well-managed fishery. We have no problem catching the fish. When we look at the commercial metrics, the number, the economics of it, I’ll give an example, and I’ll use simple numbers. It’s very close to these numbers, but on average, we wholesale that fish for about $6 a pound. Sometimes a little more, sometimes a little less.
We pay to lease that quota. We pay $4 a pound, so we have a gross margin of $2 to the vessel that’s actually catching the fish, and we have an investor that’s making $4 a pound. That investor never has to get on a boat, never has to get on the water, never has to touch a fish. He’s extracting the lion’s share of the proceeds of that fish to that, so that creates a huge inefficiency that drives the price of the fish up and creates very slim margins for the actual fishermen.
We see this trend all around the country. We see this happening in a number of different regions. The same thing’s repeated over and over. They come in with good intentions, say, “Hey, let’s do this. This will be good for the fishermen. This will be good for the fish,” and then it’s almost like they get hijacked. These fishery models get hijacked or subverted, arguably, intentionally or not. It appears to be almost by design.
Now, when I talk about, who is they? Who is they? Well, what we’ve seen, the major proponents of these catch share programs have been led by the Environmental Defense Fund, often referred to as EDF, Environmental Defense Fund, which is a very huge, global environmental, non-profit. Then you start to look deeper, and you ask, well, who … This EDF, they would funnel money to fishermen to lobby for these programs. They would lobby Congress. They would lobby the regional management councils for a particular region to advocate for the implementation of these programs. Then we start to look at, well, who’s funding EDF? Where are they getting their money from? The biggest beneficiary that we’ve seen for these catch share programs is the Walton Family Foundation, Walmart.
Reggie Rucker: Wow.
Ryan Bradley: Then we look deeper. We say, “Well, who is comprised of the Walton Family Foundation?” You start to look at their board of directors. It’s primarily Wall Street bankers.
Reggie Rucker: You laid this out perfectly. It makes total sense how we got from where we were 20, 30, 40 years ago to where we are now. The big question that we want to pivot to now is, what do we do? Earlier, we heard the story of Tim Barrett, and he’s talking about there, and you laid it out here too, there’s just very few small fisherfolks that are hanging on.
There are fewer people in the next generation as they’re thinking about, do they want to get into this business? There’s not that generational turnover, so what do we do? One, is this a problem worth solving? I think it is. Then two, yeah, how do we do it? How do we go about solving this problem at this point?
Ryan Bradley: Yeah, right on. Great question. These catch share programs, which are sold as, oh, this wonderful tool for the fish, for the fishermen, we can work to reform those. There is efforts underway currently to reform the nation’s catch share fishery policy. Myself is a part of that effort. We’ve been working very closely with NAMA, the North American Marine Alliance, on this issue. We’ve been building a coalition of like-minded fishermen from all around the country that are dealing with similar issues. We have come together, and we are proposing solutions, legislative changes that we can pitch to Congress to fix some of these issues.
The fix is really simple. It includes prioritizing actual commercial fishermen. These catch share programs are authorized by Congress and they fall under what is called, what Congress defines as Limited Access Privileged Programs. All of these catch share programs fall under Limited Access Privileged Programs, which is a great term. Unfortunately, these catch shares, really the only way that they’re limiting access is by how much money you have to buy into them. It’s created this buy-in fishery. We hear this phrase used by a lot of folks that are in these fisheries, that it’s now a buy-in fishery.
It’s no longer, “Do you have a history in commercial fishing? Do you have a tie to the local region? Are you a resident of a local community that engages in the harvest of these fish?” It’s now, “How much money do you have to buy the rights to these fish?” To me, that’s ethically wrong, it’s morally unacceptable, so what we’re going to ask Congress to do is to limit access to bonafide, actual commercial fishermen.
That will solve a lot of the problems that we’re seeing, because what’s happening is, by allowing anybody to come into these fisheries and purchase access to harvest these different species, it’s created a speculative bubble similar to what we’ve seen in the housing market years ago. It’s driving the price of these quota that the fishermen have to have through the roof to where it’s unattainable. It’s not sustainable for these fishermen, and it’s not profitable for them. What you have in these programs is consolidation.
You have the big players, the big private equity, they’re coming in, buying up as much as they can, consolidating permits and quotas, and all of this, and reducing the number of opportunities available for local, small-scale, independent operator fishermen. By putting these access rights or prioritizing those rights into the hands of actual fishermen, then we start to halt that trend and start shifting it back to local communities that it’s been hijacked from. That’s the simple way to do it.
Luke Gannon: Yeah. I want to build off Reggie’s question a little bit, but look at it in a more personalized light. Ryan, what is your hope for these fishing industry in 20, 50 years? What does it look like at the sea level?
Ryan Bradley: Yeah, well, that’s a good question. Right now, we really feel like we’re in survival mode. For many of these small-scale, independent operators, we’re just hanging on. A lot of different regions, there’s so many different pressures on the independent owner-operator fisheries. We talked about a few of them today. The privatization through catch shares, the overregulation of these fisheries.
I would say that, one, we’re in survival mode, but some of this can be addressed. Like I said, with the policy side, we got to make sure that we’re supporting our actual fishermen and that their access to fisheries is not being hijacked and subverted, first off because I think that’s unsustainable. I think that we’re seeing fishermen drop out of these programs. There’s only so long you can participate in these programs on very slim margins, and so I think we can work through policy to make it more profitable to keep fishermen in.
As we lose these people, we lose the next generation of fishermen. Same thing that our farmers are dealing with in this in the fisheries, where they call it the aging of the fleet or the graying of the fleet. What we’re seeing, very similar to America’s farmers, is the average age of the fisherman and farmer is getting older and older.
Each year, we have less people coming into these fisheries. First off, we got to make it profitable because, as a young person that’s looking at potential job opportunities, potential careers in commercial fishing, they’re looking at, for example, these catch share fisheries and they’re saying, “Well, these private equity guys have bought up all the rights. There’s really no upward mobility in these fisheries for me to go out and buy a boat, work my way up.” You start out in this industry on the back deck as a crew member. You get experience over a few years as a crew, and eventually you save up enough money to go out and purchase your own boat, your own permits, and you build into that, and you create a lasting business that you can transfer to your children.
What we see with these catch share programs, the whole access, the quota and all, that’s an essential part of the operation is being taken away from these people where they can’t access it. It’s not affordable for them to access it. It doesn’t make sense, and so therefore, these young people that may have wanted to follow in their fathers’ footsteps or their grandfathers’ footsteps says, “No. There’s no way for me to grow in this into an ownership position in this industry, so I’m going to go do something else.” We can fix that through policy, so that’s a main thing there.
Other than that, just supporting American fisheries. Consumers can, anytime you go and eat seafood, demand American seafood. Ask. If you go to a restaurant, ask, “Where did this seafood come from?” Support restaurants or establishments that are committed to serving only American. That’s a big deal. The more imported seafood we eat, that means those dollars are getting shipped overseas as well, and we’re not having the economic impact we would if those dollars were staying here in America.
Hopefully, if some of these policies can get implemented, and in the next 20 to 50 years, we start to see a rebound, a resurgence of American fisheries, but I think the main thing is we got to make them profitable. If we make the fisheries profitable, that will self-solve a lot of issues that we’re dealing with.
Reggie Rucker: That’s great. The last thing we want to do before we let you go is, we’re building out a book library where we have our guests who come on share with us something that they’ve read that’s really impacted the way they think about their work or approach the work they do. Is there a book that comes to mind for you that’s really influenced the way that you think about your work, and think about the industry and the communities that you support?
Ryan Bradley: Yeah, absolutely. A couple that come to mind that I would recommend folks look into is, one is called The Fish Market, and that is, the author is Lee van der Voo. It really dives in deeply to a lot of these things that I’ve discussed today about the catch shares and how these environmental groups have come into this space with help from Walton Family Foundation. It gets into the fight over our dinner plate, and that’s what we’re up against now. I would definitely recommend folks look into that. That’s The Fish Market with Lee van der Voo.
Then there’s another author that I really like that’s less known. His name is Robert Fritchey, Robert Fritchey. He’s wrote a couple of different books. One is called Missing Redfish. Another one is A Different Breed of Cat, and he’s got several others out there.
He has several great books around the fishing industry that are very insightful.
Luke Gannon: Wow. Those are great recommendations. This was just incredibly informative, Ryan. Thank you so much for giving us your time today. I learned a lot, a lot.
Reggie Rucker: Absolutely, yeah. Thank you, Ryan.
Ryan Bradley: Yep, well, I appreciate y’all taking the time.
Luke Gannon: Well, thank you so much, Ryan, for this thoughtful conversation and for joining us on the show today. Thank you to all of our listeners for tuning in to this episode of Building Local Power. You can find links to everything discussed today by going to and clicking on the show page for this episode. That is
Reggie Rucker: If you like this podcast, like I said at the break, please share it with your family, your friends, people you’re close to, people you’re not close to. Just share it, and remember, all of your reviews, likes, and donations help produce this podcast and support the research and resources that we make available on our website.
This show is produced by Luke Gannon and me, Reggie Rucker. This podcast is edited by Drew Birschbach and Luke Gannon. Our theme music for this season is composed by ILSR’s communications manager, Andrew Frank. Thank you for listening to Building Local Power.

Like this episode? Please help us reach a wider audience by rating Building Local Power on Apple Podcasts or wherever you find your podcasts. And please become a subscriber! If you missed our previous episodes make sure to bookmark our Building Local Power Podcast Homepage

If you have show ideas or comments, please email us at Also, join the conversation by talking about #BuildingLocalPower on Twitter and Facebook!


Subscribe: Apple Podcasts | Android | RSS


Music Credit: Andrew Frank, ILSR’s Digital Communications Manager

Photo Credit: Andrew Frank, ILSR’s Digital Communications Manager

Podcast produced by Reggie Rucker and Luke Gannon

Podcast edited by Drew Birschbach and Luke Gannon

Copyright 2016 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial (3.0) license.

Follow the Institute for Local Self-Reliance on Twitter and Facebook and, for monthly updates on our work, sign-up for our ILSR general newsletter.

Avatar photo
Follow Luke Gannon:
Luke Gannon

Luke Gannon is the Research and Communications Associate for the Independent Business team.

Avatar photo
Latest posts from Luke
Avatar photo
Follow Reggie Rucker:
Reggie Rucker

As Communications Director at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, Reggie develops communications strategies and leads campaigns to build public support for ILSR local power initiatives. Contact Reggie with media inquiries.