Scientists say giving fishermen guaranteed shares of the catch will prevent further collapse of the world's fisheries and replenish fish stocks.  As VOA's Jessica Berman reports the researchers say the strategy reverses a mindset that has brought the fishing industry to the brink of disaster.  

The world's fisheries are in serious trouble.  Experts say one-fourth of them have collapsed as a result of over-fishing.  At the current rate, a study published in Science two years ago predicted that the entire industry would go the same way by the middle of the century.

To protect fisheries, countries and communities have established catch quotas where fishermen compete for stocks.

Christopher Costello, an economics professor at the University of California Santa Barbara, says this results in a race to fish, where independent fisherman buy bigger boats and larger nets, all in an effort to outdo the competition.  

But Costello says a plan called catch shares could turn the endangered fishing industry around. Under the plan, a community or co-op would give each licensed fisherman a percentage of the catch.  "So you as a fisherman know exactly how many fish you are allowed to harvest during that season.  Nobody can take those fish away from you.  No matter how fast I go out and fish, you can fish as slowly and efficiently as you want to in order to harvest that total catch that you are allowed to.  So, what you find is that the season length extends tremendously," he said.

Costello says a fishing season might be extended in some waters up to eight months compared to two or three days when a fishing quota is met.

Experts say the benefit of catch shares is that it guarantees each fisherman a percentage of the catch and gives them a desire to want to protect fisheries.  They liken catch shares to shares in a company.  As the fisheries prosper, so do the profits for fishermen.

Costello and colleagues at the University of California and the University of Hawaii studied data on 11,000 commercial fisheries around the world between 1950 and 2003.

In a study published in Science, researchers found the collapse rate was cut in half among 121 fisheries that were managed by catch share systems compared to traditional commercial fisheries.

"The point of this paper is not that catch shares are the panacea to the fisheries crisis; but that systems where fisherman have a financial incentive to care about the long run health of systems can prevent the crisis," said John Lynham, an economics professor at the University of Hawaii.

Some environmental groups have been critical of catch share strategies because they believe the plan privatizes a public resource.  

But scientists say the evidence shows less pressure on commercial fisheries as a result of catch shares both saves and revives fisheries.  

And co-author Steve Gaines of the University of California says the results are consistent around the world. "Our study shows that the average response to catch shares was consistently positive regardless of the area where they occur or the type of species they catch.  Stewardship promotes ecological recovery, which in turn increase profits.  It is truly a win-win situation," he said.

This week, the European Union announced a full review and plans to overhaul its fishing policies that it says depletes fish stocks and penalizes commercial fisheries that play by the rules.