Discover more from More Perfect Union
How Fishermen Lost the Right to Fish
We investigated why fishermen across the country are being pushed out of the industry, while a lucky few are striking it rich. Then police raided our footage.
By Brooke Shuman, More Perfect Union
A few months ago, we went to the Gulf of Mexico to interview Ryan Bradley, a red snapper fisherman and activist in Ocean Springs, Mississippi. We’d heard about a little-known fishery management policy that was devastating fishing communities and rapidly consolidating what used to be fleets of owner-operator fishing boats.
What we didn’t know was that the policy was designed and backed by a combination of free-market radicals, an influential and well-funded environmental group, and the richest family in America.
If you’ve ever eaten red snapper, it’s probably from the Gulf. Commercial red snapper fishing generated $35 million in 2022 for the coastal states. It’s an expensive fish—in the Gulf, snapper retails for roughly $10 a pound, and in major cities like New York, it can go for as much as $25 a pound. But the average fisherman is seeing little of that profit.
“Us poor fishermen are making about 50 cents a pound on a fish that goes for $10 a pound at market,” Bradley says. “And I’ve got a little bit of an issue with that.”
Each fishing trip has costs—fuel, bait, and maintenance of the boat—but Bradley’s issue is with something else: the leasing rights, which cost him $4.50 for every pound he fishes. That’s because another fisherman in the Gulf owns the rights to catch snapper and leases those rights out to Bradley.
Watch our full video investigation here, or continue with the article below:
This is what’s known as a “catch share,” and it’s different than a simple fishing license. A catch share is basically a quota: regulators set a limit every year on how much fish can be caught and sold, and fishermen get a percentage of that.
For generations, fishermen like Bradley fished freely in the ocean. In the Gulf, it was red snapper, grouper, and shrimp; Bradley was a shrimper himself when he first started. But as fishing industrialized and 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, 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 me. “When you have that much consolidation and control, it’s easy to manipulate the market.”
From ‘derby days’ to catch share
At the very top of that list is Keith Guindon. He’s just below the regional limit of 6% of the annual quota, but he has a vertically integrated fishing empire in Galveston, Texas: a fleet of boats, a fish house, a successful restaurant called Katie’s, and even a reality TV show Big Fish Texas. He also serves as the executive director of a group called the Gulf of Mexico Reef Fish Shareholders’ Alliance, which lobbies for the catch share system.
Since the catch share program was introduced, the number of fishermen that are leasing has increased, as well as the number of shareholders that aren’t fishing at all–33 percent of quota owners don’t set foot on a boat. (Guindon himself still fishes.)
Guindon wasn’t available for an interview, but we were able to talk to his associate and the president of the Shareholders’ Alliance, Bubba Cochrane. Cochrane is one of the Gulf’s snapper kingpins; he owns 2% of the annual quota, and fishes it all every season. Like Guindon, he still goes out on the water himself but with the amount of shares Cochrane holds, he could lease the rights for about $689,000 a year and not have to worry about everything that comes with captaining a boat. “I still like fishing,” Cochrane reasoned, and added, “I’m not old yet.”
The way we manage our fisheries is complicated: since Congress passed the Magnuson-Stevens Act in 1976, there have been eight regional fishery councils that use different methods to maintain the fish population. One region might design their nets to prevent overfishing; another might limit the days fishermen can be at sea. That resulted in what was known as Derby Days: a short window when fishermen could chase the King Crab and salmon runs and halibut.
The race to fish was dangerous, and the weather was brutal, and fishermen sometimes even died at sea. And with only a short window when fish were available to sell at market, it drove down the price for fishermen or led them to put the fish on ice until the market was better. This led to fish that wasn’t as good, turning a catch of fresh fish into a block for frozen fish sticks.
When the quota system was introduced, fishermen who had been there during the Derby Days were skeptical. “I was mad,” Cochrane told me. “I was about ready to cuss them all out…you’re taking away my livelihood.”
In the early years of catch shares, fishing communities saw the results, and they weren’t happy. Fishing councils petitioned to stop the practice, and in 1996, Congress put a moratorium on the expansion of catch shares. But a few catch share enthusiasts were sold on the program as a method to protect ocean habitats—and to make a profit.
Fishing rights were originally given to fishermen based on how much they’d fished in the past. Cochrane was a deckhand at the time with no record of fishing snapper, so he had to buy in. “I was able to mortgage my house and mortgage my dad’s house,” he said. “And it was a big deal. I still think about it.”
Cochrane invested half a million dollars for the right to catch a fish that just a few years before was barely holding on, a terrifying proposition. But the investment eventually paid off; those shares he bought for $10/lb in 2006 sell for nearly five times that amount today.
About half of the Gulf’s quota is held by 20 fishermen like Cochrane and Guindon, but Bradley doesn’t hold this against them. They both still fish; they’ve also just made the system work for them. And Cochrane is proud of the business he’s built. With a stable market, he’s able to fish year-round—no more dangerous days at sea—and pay his crew more. He says an average trip can yield $700 a day
An unholy alliance
But now, we are in a fishing rights bubble. Shares themselves are so expensive that when they leave the hands of someone like Cochrane, the only entities that can afford to buy them are often massive corporations.
In coastal Massachusetts, the biggest groundfish fisherman for years was Carlos Rafael, known locally as the Codfather. When he was indicted for fraud and tax evasion and forced out of the business, his shares went to a private equity-backed company, Blue Harvest, that leased rights as well as boats to fishermen who didn’t have a lot of other options.
But after a decade in operation, that company unceremoniously shut down, leaving the fishing community of New Bedford drained of one of its chief economic drivers—and with millions in unpaid contracts. Cochrane says he doesn’t want to see a corporate takeover of the Gulf’s fishing quota. But as the law stands now, any entity in the United States can buy red snapper quota, without having any ties to the fisheries.
In the early years of catch shares, fishing communities saw the results, and they weren’t happy. Fishing councils petitioned to stop the practice, and in 1996, Congress put a moratorium on the expansion of catch shares. But a few catch share enthusiasts were sold on the program as a method to protect ocean habitats—–and to make a profit.
One of the biggest proponents of catch shares is the Environmental Defense Fund, a non-profit advocacy group with an annual revenue of $210 million. Another was the Walton family.
You’ve probably heard of the Waltons. In an era when billionaires vie for the top slot on the Forbes’ Richest List, the family that still owns a majority of Wal-Mart is still the richest in America, and their family charitable Foundation holds nearly $5 billion in assets, enough to make waves in any policy fight.
In the 2000s, the Waltons decided that protecting the oceans was one of their most important missions. Since 2009, the Walton Family Foundation has granted millions to the Environmental Defense Fund and other marine conservation organizations aligned with their vision. Last year, the Walton Family Foundation gave $225,000 to the Gulf of Mexico Reef Fish Shareholders’ Alliance.
The Waltons may truly care about the preservation of our oceans; members of the family have said so for decades. But Wal-Mart is simultaneously one of the top retailers of seafood worldwide. And the catch share programs aren’t just in the United States—they’ve pushed for the program in Indonesia, Peru, Ecuador, and Mexico, all in the name of conservation. These fisheries, once made up of almost exclusively small-scale rural fishermen, are at risk of consolidating as well. (The Walton Family Foundation didn’t respond to our request for an interview.)
The Environmental Defense Fund lobbied hard and in 2002, the congressional moratorium on the expansion of catch share programs was lifted. The federal government had a mandate to bring back federal fishery stocks, and in 2006, the Magnuson-Stevens Act was being reauthorized. Major environmental non-profits, including EDF, wanted science-backed limits on fish catch in all federal fisheries. Lee Van Der Voo reported in her book The Fish Market that EDF split with their partners in the marine conservation network, insisting that the market-based model was superior to a simple limit. EDF secured funding from the Waltons, the Kochs, and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, drowning out the campaigning efforts of the Nature Conservancy and Ocean Foundation.
Several years later, then-President-elect Barack Obama hired EDF alum David Festa to his transition team and later appointed Jane Lubchenco, a member of the EDF board, to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Catch shares became a cornerstone of the national oceans policy and the administration began converting federal fisheries to the catch share system—and encouraging private investors to capitalize on the transition.
Festa touted the program to investors at the 2009 Milken Institute conference, saying that the catch share system could bolster profits in the nation’s fisheries, if only there was capital investment. “There is a significant business opportunity here. We don’t know how big it is, but it is potentially significant,” Festa, who also worked at the Department of Commerce during the Clinton administration, said to the room of investors. “And that’s where I think public-private partnerships come in because the government has the mandate and the authority to change the rules, but it doesn’t have as much capital as it once had.”
“It was really trying to align the business interests of the fishing industry with the conservation needs of the fish stocks,” says Eric Schwaab, who works for EDF now and was at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration under Obama. “A certain amount of consolidation was inevitable.”
This consolidation, Schwaab said, “rationalized” the fisheries. And by “rationalize,” he means increasing the efficiency and productivity of the fishery. One of the intended goals of catch shares was always to thin out the fleet.
There’s a lot that can be argued in favor of catch shares. Commercial fishing is now a safer job because fishermen aren’t racing to catch fish in an artificially short season. The price of snapper can stabilize because it's available year-round. And the catch share program, as well as changes to shrimping nets that were picking up snapper bycatch, has brought back the population of fish like the red snapper.
While we know that conserving our oceans is important—and we need solutions to prevent overfishing— it shouldn’t come as a surprise that America's richest family would support a system that doesn’t consider the livelihoods of working people.
But there are different management models already in use that don’t make the quota itself a commodity, as Brett Tolley, who runs the North American Marine Alliance and lobbies against privatization in fisheries, explained to us. Tolley brought up other federally managed, limited access models: “Dogfish, monkfish, skate—these are management programs that are not catch shares.” None of them use the private model.
“The populations have had their ups and downs but overall they’re doing great,” Tolley told More Perfect Union. “There’s always improvement for this but it’s fundamentally not a privatization program and they’re doing very well.”
Fishermen like Bradley also advocate for tighter caps on how much any individual or company can own, and rules that say that quota holders have to catch the fish themselves–no more leasing, and no more armchair fishermen. And local permit banks have popped up across the country to provide fishermen with low-interest loans to buy shares. Several of those banks, in fact, are funded by the Walton Family Foundation.
“I like to fish, I like to make money when I fish,” Bradley says. “You like to be able to feed your family, pay your bills.”
The consequences of the market-based, corporate-backed catch share policy can serve as a lesson. The original catch share system was based on an economic philosophy that has since been debunked: the idea of the tragedy of the commons, that resources inevitably get gobbled up and destroyed when they are collectively managed. Privatization was seen as a solution—but ultimately, it’s made eking out a living as a fisherman even more difficult.
“There is nothing inherent that ties privatization to stewardship. It is a false idea that if you own something you will inherently take care of it.” Tolley said, “And yet the Environmental Defense Fund, the Walton Foundation, and many others are promoting that false solution that if we own the fish as a private property, we will be better incentivized to take care of the future population.”
“We’ve seen what consolidation does to banking and the pharmaceutical companies,” Tolley said, “and we're watching the same sort of abuse take place on the ocean.”