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Individual fishing quotas (IFQs) are one kind of catch share, a means by which many governments have tried to regulate fishing. Due to the widely recognized depletion of wild fish populations, governments set a species-by-species limit of total allowable catches (TAC). In the United Statesmarker, the limits are based on historical records of fishing and given out as property rights to fishermen and companies.

Individual transferable quotas

Individual transferable quotas (ITQs) are one of many fishery rationalization instruments. They are defined under the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act as permits to harvest specific quantities of fish. Fisheries scientists decide the optimal annual amount of fish that can be harvested in a certain fishery, taking into account carrying capacity, regeneration rates and future values. This amount is called the total allowable catch (TAC). Under ITQs, members of a fishery are granted rights to a percentage of the TAC which can be harvested each year. These quotas can be fished, bought, sold, or leased allowing for the least cost vessels to be used. ITQs were first implemented in New Zealandmarker as a "Quota Management System". Along with New Zealand, they can be found in Australia, Icelandmarker, Canadamarker and the United Statesmarker. Only three ITQ programs have been implemented in the United States due concerns about distributional impacts leading to a moratorium on moving other fisheries into the program.

It is important to understand the differences between catch shares and ITQs. While catch shares are a dedicated access privilege (DAP) for a certain portion of the overall TAC, an ITQ is a property right conveyed by the government to a private party. Catch shares or DAPs are effectively renting access, while ITQs are akin to owning access in perpetuity (a privatization). This difference has led some involved in U.S. domestic fisheries to support DAPs which can be rescinded while opposing ITQs due to the conversion of a public trust resource into a private holding.

ITQs attempt to improve on "days at sea" limits, and daily catch limits which can result in dead fish being thrown back.


Historically, inshore or deepwater fisheries were in common ownership, essentially a free-for-all, where no one had a property right (i.e., owned the fish) until after they had been caught. The effect of this was a race to catch the most fish, with no incentive to conserve the stock of fish for the future.

Initial responses to this classic example of the tragedy of the commons were command and control approaches: restricting boat numbers, controlling access, prescribing specific equipment, imposing time-limits, etc. These measures made the problem worse, and encouraged the fishermen to behave as though they were in a race. The first one to find a school with the most efficient boat got the lion's share. Limiting the season led to too many boats chasing too few fish. Limiting boat numbers rewarded the captain with the biggest boat. Prescribing equipment pushed the ingenious to find new ways to catch the same amount of fish without violating the rules.. Seasons eventually shrank to only 2 to 3 days of intense fishing, but the catch was still too large, and markets reacted to the bulge in the supply of each species by slashing prices, leading to huge losses.. Harvesting was becoming more and more expensive and often dangerous as boats competed to bring in the catch in only a few days.

H. Scott Gordon was the first economist to notice that under open access situations, fisheries became over-fished and ITQs eliminate the need for this race by promising each harvester a portion of the catch and allowing them to catch fish throughout the year, allowing smaller boats to be competitive, and allowing captains to time their activities to get the best price for their efforts.

Distribution issues

ITQs capture the economic rents of a fishery and end up can become valuable. Creating ITQs is a boon to overall wealth, but where that wealth goes has become a source of contention. Some worry that large corporations will end up owning all the ITQs. Other industries, such as fish processing, claim that they should receive a portion of the ITQ. One of the innovations to bypass these issues is fishing cooperatives such as the offshore pollock cooperatives in the Pacific Northwest.

Some fisheries require quota holders to be participating fishermen (to prevent absentee ownership) and limit the quota that a captain can accumulate. In the Alaska Halibut and Blackcod fisheries, only active fishermen can buy IFQ's, and new entrants may not sublease their quota. Since IFQ's began in 1995, the commercial longline fleet has never exceeded the TAC. Positives from IFQ's in the above fishery include vastly improved safety and product quality, a more professional fleet, minimal gear loss or 'ghost fishing'.


These programs have been criticized for privatising what were previously public resource, and creating barriers for new fishers to enter the market.

ITQs also provide an incentive for highgrading. Following the letter, but not the spirit of the law, fish are caught, and if not considered optimal, thrown back into the ocean. High grading allows fishers to get higher price for their limited catch but doesn't protect the fishery, because many of the released fish quickly die.


In 2008 a large scale fisheries study provided strong evidence that ITQ's can help to prevent collapses and restore declining fisheries.


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