A few decades ago, the federal government introduced a misguided, market-based system to conserve our oceans. Now, thousands of small fishermen are going out of business while a lucky few are striking it rich.
When we investigated, police raided our footage.
For generations, fishermen like Ryan Bradley fished freely in the ocean. In the Gulf, they caught red snapper, grouper, and shrimp; Bradley was a shrimper himself when he first started. But as fishing industrialized and as demand for seafood went up, populations of fish like red snapper began to deplete, to the point of near-collapse in the Gulf in the early 1990s.
So a few fisheries started trying a new, market-based solution to manage fishing called the catch share program. The rationale was similar to the logic behind home ownership: if a fisherman owned the right to fish, he or she would take better care of the stock. But, as with housing, what happened instead is that the right to fish became a commodity that could be bought and sold. And that led to two developments that made earning a living as a fisherman even more difficult: a rapid increase in the price of fishing rights, and a new class of “fishery landlords” who would rent out the right to fish.
That’s what happened in the Gulf, where the right to catch snapper quickly got gobbled up by the largest players. Bradley pointed to a list of companies and people who own the quota today.
“The top twenty people own half of the red snapper quota.” Bradley told us. “When you have that much consolidation and control, it’s easy to manipulate the market.”