Today, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced a new commercial fisheries policy: Catch shares for everyone. That means giving fishermen individual shares of fish to catch when they please and to manage for maximum profit. The idea is to relieve the pressure they’re currently under to catch more fish faster, which many current fishery management plans inadvertently reward.

Proponents of catch share programs, including Environmental Defense Fund, say they reduce overfishing, improve fishermen’s safety and profits, and reduce the negative environmental and economic effects of the race for fish.

The catch share idea isn’t new – there are 14 U.S. fisheries being managed this way already – but building a national policy around it is. NOAA chief Jane Lubchenco has been paying lip service to the idea for awhile now, as the West Coast groundfish trawl fishery gets its catch-share program underway. Here’s what she said today:

“Catch share programs have proven to be powerful tools to transform fisheries, making them prosperous, stable and sustainable parts of our nation’s strategy for healthy and resilient ocean ecosystems. NOAA’s policy encourages fishery management councils and stakeholders to explore the design possibilities of catch shares to tailor programs to best meet local needs.”

Steve Bodnar, the executive director of the Coos Bay Trawler Association, has been working with the Pacific Fishery Management Council to help develop the groundfish trawl fishery program. Here’s what he said about the catch-share policy:

“We’re on the edge of doing something great. This program is opening up communication between fishermen who were used to working alone. We’re going to swap quota to keep as many boats on the water in order to keep our port whole. We’ll also work together to share resources, to develop gear that will avoid fish that are not as abundant and catch the healthier stocks, and to market our catch to help consumers support local fishermen. By working together, we will survive.”

That’s a pretty optimistic outlook for a fisherman, wouldn’t you say? Not everyone is quite so enthused. In fact, just last week, several groups of small-boat fishermen sued the U.S. Department of Commerce saying the groundfish trawl catch-share violates existing fisheries law. One of their complaints is that the method being employed to make fisheries more sustainable essentially puts some fishermen out of business and concentrate ownership shares into fewer hands. That isn’t necessarily going to be good for fishing communities, they say.

Other groundfish fishermen have been irked by the way the quota has been allocated. The Pacific Fishery Management Council took stock of how much fish each boat had caught over certain years and used that data to divvy up shares of more than 80 different species of groundfish. But some species are a lot more valuable than others in the marketplace, like black cod/sablefish, and others are running low, like the canary rockfish. Suddenly, the number of canary rockfish you caught in the past could determine how much money you make next year. So, there’s plenty for fishermen to gripe about. But the truth is they were griping already.

Despite the many complications of designing a catch-share program, a survey by the Oregon Trawl Commission found about 70 percent of their membership supports the idea as an alternative to the hassles of the current two-month catch limit rules. Even fishermen who are selling out because they didn’t get enough quota to keep their business going are glad to have something to sell. Another complaint about catch shares is that they privatize public resources. What do you think about that argument?