Catch shares slow the race to fish

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In fisheries, the tragedy of the commons manifests as a competitive race to fish that compresses fishing seasons, resulting in ecological damage, economic waste, and occupational hazards1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8. Catch shares are hypothesized to halt the race by securing each individual’s right to a portion of the total catch, but there is evidence for this from selected examples only2,9. Here we systematically analyse natural experiments to test whether catch shares reduce racing in 39 US fisheries. We compare each fishery treated with catch shares to an individually matched control before and after the policy change. We estimate an average policy treatment effect in a pooled model and in a meta-analysis that combines separate estimates for each treatment–control pair. Consistent with the theory that market-based management ends the race to fish, we find strong evidence that catch shares extend fishing seasons. This evidence informs the current debate over expanding the use of market-based regulation to other fisheries.

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We thank NOAA, NC Sea Grant and ECS Federal for financial support; and J. Agar, C. Anderson, B. Best, R. Curtis, H. Fell, R. Felthoven, A. Haynie, J. Hilger, D. Holland, M. Larkin, J. Lee, M.-Y. Lee, D. Lipton, G. Magnusson, L. Perruso, D. Squires, J. Stephen, S. Stohs, A. Strelcheck, E. Thunberg, M. Travis, and participants at NAAFE, AERE, IIFET and ASSA for comments and data support.

Author information


  1. Nicholas School of the Environment, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina 27708, USA

    • Anna M. Birkenbach
    • , David J. Kaczan
    •  & Martin D. Smith
  2. Sanford School of Public Policy, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina 27708, USA

    • Anna M. Birkenbach
    •  & David J. Kaczan
  3. Department of Economics, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina 27708, USA

    • Martin D. Smith


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A.M.B., D.J.K. and M.D.S. contributed equally to all parts of this research.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Martin D. Smith.

Reviewer Information Nature thanks R. Hilborn and A. Rosenberg for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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