In a sense, the ocean is the last wilderness on Earth, especially when you consider that most burgers, chicken wings, and ham sandwiches come from an animal raised within the claustrophobic confines of a factory farm. They weren’t nobly brought down by an arrow in the forest. But that grouper fillet? That fish was caught in the ocean.

Fish are the only “wild” protein source we still consume on a large-scale basis. Designated seasons and annual catch limits closely regulate how many pounds of a particular type of fish are allowed to be caught and sold. When the season opens, fishermen race to fill their boats until that year’s quota is met, creating a frenzied phenomenon known as “derby fishing.”

Some environmentalists argue that this all-at-once race to pull huge amounts of fish from the sea is not sustainable. Even though the vermilion snapper fishery may close on March 1, nothing stops them from biting a hook intended for grouper. Most offshore fishermen experience a tinge of guilt whenever they release a perfectly good fish; after all, there’s a good chance that the newly freed fish will likely die.

Another problem with derby fishing: boat captains and their crews often push themselves to their limits, from staying out in stormy, high seas to going days without the necessary sleep. That’s not to mention the complete loss of income for fishermen when a fishery closes. Currently, all grouper and snapper fisheries off the South Carolina coast are closed.

“The way we’re fishing right now, you can’t stop once a fishery opens because it could close at any time,” says Matt Ruby, a snapper-grouper fisherman for 15 years. “We all need to make as much money as we can while the fishery is open.” Ruby is part-owner of two boats docked in Little River and McClellanville as well as the president of the South Atlantic Fisheries Association (SAFA).

Formed in 2011, SAFA champions catch shares, a type of fishery management that shifts the annual catch limit from a fish-until-that-year’s-quota-is-reached scenario to a system that gives fishermen a percentage of the quota to catch as they see fit throughout the year. Catch shares aren’t new; a program has been in place for wreckfish along the East Coast from North Carolina to Florida since 1994. However, a catch share program in the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council’s much larger snapper-grouper fishery would be an unprecedented step. (The South Atlantic Fishery Management Council, SAFMC, determines the catch limits, closings, and general management practices for fishermen off of South Carolina’s shores.)

The SAFA believes that catch shares, also called Individual Fishing Quotas (IFQs), are a virtual panacea for the ills facing the South Atlantic snapper-grouper fishery, which has been plagued in recent years by more frequent and even earlier closures. (Former year-round fisheries like vermilion snapper and tilefish are now open for only about six months of the year. During closures, commercial fishermen struggle to find work.) SAFA’s plan would take the current catch limit allotment and break it into shares, distributing these among existing permit holders based on their average historic annual catch. Shares could then be sold, leased, and bartered on the open market, not unlike “cap and trade” programs that regulate industrial emissions.

According to SAFA, by allotting fishermen an annual share, a year-round fishery would allow fishermen to pace themselves to avoid the rush of a derby season, ensure a year-round supply for restaurants, and reduce by-catch by allowing fishermen to keep species that might otherwise be out of season. Catch-share advocates also claim that boat captains could maximize profits by timing their catch with market prices.

However, Kate Quigley, SAFA executive director, says that the need for catch shares is about more than helping fisherman make a few extra bucks. Commercial fishing is in trouble. The SAFA’s primary reason for advocating catch shares is to ensure that fisheries remain open. “If things continue the way they are with closures, people will not be able to survive,” Quigley says. “There’s nothing to go out and fish for. What we’re seeing is that there will no longer be a commercial fishery in South Carolina unless some kind of new program is created.”

According to SAFA, 43 of the 600 permit holders have joined the organization. SAFA estimates that these 43 permit holders catch between 15 and 45 percent of the total annual snapper-grouper harvest in the South Atlantic region. Their estimate is obviously broad, but they use it to show that although 43 of 600 is clearly not a majority, it may be a larger portion of the actual fishery than it appears. Quigley notes that many of those 600 permits are rarely or never used or are kept by crabbers and fishermen who target other species and maintain snapper-grouper permits as insurance for hurricane seasons when their normal catch might not be available. Another group of holders stockpile the permits, valued at about $10,000 each.

Although the SAFA doesn’t have anywhere close to a majority of permit holders by their side, they do have very valuable allies. Thanks to the financial backing of the New York-based Environmental Defense Fund, SAFA has enlisted Charleston public relations firm Rawle Murdy to popularize the catch-share program. It’s a move that’s left some catch-share opponents feeling helpless.

A limited impact

Mark Marhefka, owner of Abundant Seafood and founder of the first community supported fishery (CSF) program in Charleston, is among the Lowcountry’s most respected fishermen. (CSFs operate in much of the same way as community supported agriculture programs.) He’s been fishing the Atlantic waters since 1977, and he’s served on advisory panels for the SAFMC since the ’90s, including as chairman of the snapper-grouper panel. Meanwhile his wife, Kerry, is a former SAFMC fishery biologist.

Kerry says that she and Mark feel “out-gunned” by the presence of advertising firm Rawle Murdy. So in January, the pair sent a letter to their CSF and restaurant customers, urging them to be wary of the catch-share hype.

“There is no biological advantage to this system over one of open access — the total quota remains the same,” Kerry says. “This is simply an economic tool used to allocate who catches how much of the pie.”

The Marhefkas are concerned that the catch-shares method splits quotas based on historical averages rather than the current annual harvests of permit holders. “This will drastically reduce the individual quotas for those who are active in the fishery, thus forcing us to buy or lease quota from those who have it but don’t want to fish it,” Kerry explains. She is concerned that wholesalers will stockpile permits, hoping they can lure fishermen like Mark to their docks when his quota is reduced and he needs more. “The problem is they will then demand that we sell our fish back to them instead of selling it on our own. Our fear is we will have to go back to working for the company store. We don’t have the capital to be buying permits at this time, so we would only have the much-reduced quota that would be given to us at the start.”

Megan Westmeyer, the sustainable seafood coordinator at the S.C. Aquarium, says her organization has refrained from taking sides. (The S.C. Aquarium Seafood Initiative encourages restaurants to use local and sustainable seafood in their dishes.) However, she agrees with the Marhefkas that catch shares will have little impact on fish populations.

“With respect to the actual fish population in the ocean, whether or not there is a catch share management system is irrelevant,” Westmeyer says. “The biological control is the annual catch limit.”

Conventional wisdom supports fishery closures during the spring spawning season, especially for species that aggregate in groups, but opening deep sea ledges to catch share permit holders all year long may also have no detrimental effect.

“If you have an annual catch limit and it’s well enforced, does it matter if it’s before, during, or after they spawn?” asks Westmeyer. “I don’t think science has an answer for that.”

Westmeyer also points out that no management system is perfect. Despite problems with by-catch in the existing system, fishermen within a catch-share system may practice “high grading,” which is when fishermen discard a less valuable fish that has already been harvested due to size or quality, Westmeyer says. “Because they are no longer in a race to compete with others, they can take more time to seek out the highest value fish, crabs, etc. and discard the less valuable ones before they return to shore and report their harvest.”

From the bottom to the top

Before the late ’80s, the wreckfish fishery was relatively unknown in Charleston. A deep-water species, wreckfish live far off the coast and are costly to reach. But when shrimp populations briefly dropped in the early ’90s, shrimpers switched to harvesting wreckfish en masse. “It was out of control,” recalls SAFMC fisheries social scientist Kari MacLaughlin.

SAFMC debuted its first catch-share program in 1994 to handle the wreckfish “gold rush.” The fish’s popularity soon declined, however, as shrimp rebounded and fishermen realized the expense and difficulty of catching the trans-Atlantic wreckfish.

Only a few boats still actively pursue wreckfish, with much of the region’s supply coming through the Cherry Point Seafood Company on Wadmalaw Island. Because catches over the last 20 years have not come close to reaching the 2-million-pound total annual catch limit, SAFMC re-evaluated the fishery and lowered the limit to just 237,000, effective for the 2012 season that opened April 15. The new numbers are based on catch-per-unit studies, which gauge population estimates by balancing the “bang for your buck” that a boat brings in compared to historical numbers.

Unfortunately for active wreckfish boat captains, the quota drop reflects an equally dramatic decrease in their percentage-based catch-share allotment. Although the new limit reflects the historic annual catch, many of the shares are inactive. SAFMC has responded with amendments that redistribute active permits to working fishermen, but those won’t go through before sometime this summer. Even then, MacLaughlin acknowledges that the individual allotments may still be less than what fishermen caught in recent years.

“As far as maintaining operation size, I don’t know if they’re going to be able to do that,” she says.

The situation has left wreckfish boats and their crews wondering if they’ll be able to fish once they meet their new, greatly diminished quota, without purchasing shares on the open market, a significant added expense. Some snapper and grouper fishermen have anxiously watched the wreckfish situation, worrying that their fate might soon be similar. Because of the existing overabundance of permits, a new fishermen who desires to enter the snapper-grouper fishery must currently purchase two permits on the open market (again, roughly $10,000), which they can then exchange for one permit with the SAFMC.

Even the Marhefkas acknowledge that the catch shares can work for some fisheries, but they disagree that it’s the right choice for the snapper and grouper fisheries in the South Atlantic. They support an organization called Food and Water Watch, which opposes catch shares, advocating a “fair fish” program that favors small-scale fishermen.

A catch-share program for snapper and grouper would still not be able to work around some closures. Even if such a program is implemented, fishermen still might have to work around the existing closures of protected reefs and fisheries during their most vulnerable times of the year, calling into question the claims of a year-round fishery offered by catch-share advocates. “A catch-share program is not a silver bullet that would do away with other regulations in place,” says Kim Iverson, the executive director of the SAFMC. “Spawning season is in place for a reason.”

SAFMC last seriously considered a snapper-grouper catch share in 2006-’07, ultimately deciding that not enough support existed among permit holders to pursue a plan. “It’s basically an issue of economics and business,” Iverson says. “If the fishermen want it, then we’ll listen.”

The Snapper Grouper Advisory Panel meets in North Charleston April 18-19, and while catch shares are not officially on the agenda, there’s little doubt that they’ll be a hot topic among attendees.

Fisheries in collapse?

SAFA’s Quigley says that the latest push for catch shares is driven by the dire state of today’s fishery. Frequent closures are far from unique to the South Atlantic. A 2008 study published in Science magazine finds that most of the world’s commercial fisheries could collapse within decades. Examining 11,135 fisheries from 1950 to 2003, the University of California scientists who conducted the study found that widespread implementation of catch shares could halt or reverse the trend toward collapse. On the other hand, the S.C. Aquarium’s Megan Westmeyer cites a 2010 study by the University of Washington which found that the production capacities of fisheries were “largely unresponsive to catch-share management.”

Deep-sea fish populations are measured largely through reported catches, making these species among the most difficult wildlife populations to monitor. One of the only inarguable facts about these fisheries is that the increasing number of closings are driving more and more fishermen out of business.

“Because the situation on the water is so incredibly bad, we have people signing up that we never thought we’d have,” says Quigley, noting the reluctance of boat captains, typically go-it-alone types, to team up or contact a group for help. “For them to join up with other fishermen is highly unusual.”

As for Marhefka, he and Kerry are quick to point out that it’s not every day when a group of fishermen hire a top-tier PR firm. For the Marhefkas, catch shares boil down to the privatization of a fishery, allocating a public resource to individuals in a way that would allow corporate control of fisheries. They acknowledge that the system needs changes to help fishermen survive, especially in closure-heavy months like April, when expenses exceed income. But they disagree that catch shares are the way to do that.

“Mark’s a damn good fisherman, and he works harder than anyone else, so when the season opens, Mark is going to catch more fish than anyone else,” Kerry says. “He who works the hardest wins. We feel that with catch shares, he who has the most money wins.”

But according to SAFA President Matt Ruby, those who are concerned about job loss and consolidation under a catch-share management program ignore the fact that the same trends are already occurring. And he would know. He had to purchase four snapper-grouper permits under the current system to enter the fishery with his two boats after 1998. If a corporation wanted to control the entire fishery, he says, they could already buy out a significant portion of the existing 600 permits, even without catch shares.

“That’s privatization right there,” Ruby says. “I don’t want to have to buy shares, but I didn’t want to spend $40,000 on a permit either. But I’ll do whatever it takes. Catch shares, IFQs, whatever you want to call it — it gives us an option to try and make it. People are barely making it as it is now.”

Love Best of Charleston?

Help the Charleston City Paper keep Best of Charleston going every year with a donation. Or sign up to become a member of the Charleston City Paper club.