For fish fanciers and fishers alike, the best way to make sure of an abundant future seafood supply is to throw back the race-for-fish system and fish for a better way. Fortunately, a key federal agency is proposing just that.

The big imperative is a congressional mandate to end overfishing by 2011. Up to now, the primary approach has been to limit fishing seasons. Faced with narrow time windows, fishers buy too many boats, cut too many corners on safety, catch too many fish (the ones they want, as well as a lot of innocent bystander fish), and put too many on the market at the same time, depressing the dollar value of their catch.

But since 1990, a few U.S. fisheries - now up to 13 - have tried another way: catch shares. This allocates shares of the catch to individual fishers, communities, cooperatives and others, usually based on what they've caught in the past. It lets them catch throughout the year, until they reach their quota. That eliminates the many downsides of the race for fish, protects the fisheries and increases per-boat revenues.

A new draft policy from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration urges fishery management councils to try catch shares. It doesn't mandate the practice, but for those who try it, NOAA will help in a variety of ways.

As long as the allocation of shares is worked out fairly, and makes room for new generations of fishers, this seems like the smart way to have our fish and eat them too. hN

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