West Coast trawlers spare the little fish


Last year, fishermen on the West Coast who trawl for groundfish -- species like cod and sole that live on or close to the sea floor -- started fishing by a new set of rules. The National Marine Fisheries Service introduced a system that, to date has succeeded in reducing the number of discarded fish and bycatch -- unwanted fish that are caught along with target fish and often chucked away and die. The findings were announced last week, in a report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The management system implemented in the groundfish fishery is called a catch share. It’s akin to “cap and trade” programs. Basically, a limit on total fish catch is set and permits to catch certain numbers of fish are traded among participants. On the West Coast, the Pacific Fishery Management Council decides on that total catch limit for groundfish species for the year. It then divvies this up among fishermen, based on their catch histories. Fishermen can sell or trade these shares with other shareholders.

Limits are set on bycatch as well as sellable fish, and independent monitors onboard boats keep track of what fishermen are pulling in. The catch share program gives fishermen more time to fish, since they are not restricted to trying to catch as much as they can in a two-month period, which was how the fishery was previously managed. This, combined with individual bycatch limits, has created an environment where fishermen are more careful with how they fish, explains Frank Lockhart, assistant regional administrator for sustainable fisheries with the National Marine Fisheries Service. It has also led to innovations in the gear that trawl fishermen use, with some fishermen using advanced equipment that limits how much unwanted fish is pulled in with a catch, Lockhart says.

As the graph below shows, bycatch numbers dropped for most “rebuilding” species (those that have been overfished and whose populations need to rejuvenate), with the exception of widow rockfish, a species whose numbers rebounded prior to 2010, making it tougher to avoid, according to the report.

Besides a drop in bycatch numbers, the groundfish industry also saw a bump in revenues. Annual revenue for 2011 was $54 million; in the the previous five years, average annual revenue was just $38 million per year, according to the report. One of the reasons is that fishermen were able to harvest more fish in December, says Lockhart. Other factors also came into play, though. The trading price for sablefish, a bottom dweller that likes muddy terrain and is sold on the Asian market, was high last year, he explains. Fishermen also caught and sold more whiting due to an expanded quota.

While the NOAA report seems promising from a conservation standpoint, there are groups that criticize catch sharing programs in general. Advocacy group Food and Water Watch, for example, maintains that catch share programs lead to privatization of the fishing industry, with larger companies buying small-scale fishermen’s shares, creating a situation that mirrors the way small farms have been swallowed up by large factory farms in the agricultural sector. As the group’s report Fish, Inc. (page 6) highlights, the Bering Sea red king crab industry shrunk by 177 vessels (71 percent of the initial fleet) in the four years following the introduction of a catch share system there in 2005, resulting in a loss of jobs.

To combat the potential for consolidation of the groundfish industry, the West Coast management program has accumulation limits in place. The limits place a cap on what percentage of the total fish stock a shareholder can harvest. They are typically in the 2.5 to 10 percent range, although some are as high as 17.7 percent.

The West Coast catch share program has also introduced extra overheads for fishermen. Each boat is required to have an observer onboard to record total catch and bycatch numbers, along with other data, so the Marine Fisheries Service has a more accurate picture of how stocks are faring. Last year, the NMFS subsidized 90 percent of the cost of observers, who work for about $400 to $450 per day. Over the following years the portion the government subsidizes will decrease, until 2015 when fishermen will have to carry the full cost themselves. 

There are other overheads too. Fishermen are still repaying loans from a $36 million federal buyout the government approved for the then-floundering industry in 2003. When combined with fees for the catch share program’s administration, loan repayments and observer charges can put a 10 to 20 percent dent in a fisherman’s gross income, writes Shems Jud, deputy regional director for the Environmental Defense Fund’s Pacific Oceans program.

The catch share program is proving to be successful from the conservation standpoint and is leading to innovations in fishing methods that reduce bycatch, but its long-term success comes down to the costs involved, says Jud. To lessen the financial load, monitoring costs could be reduced, possibly by using onboard cameras, and the outstanding loan could be refinanced, he explains.

While the early results in the NOAA report bode well for conservation efforts, it seems there are still some economic issues that need to be ironed out.

If you're interested, a full list of shareholders in the Pacific Coast groundfish program is available from NOAA (click on the “quota share account balance” tab).

Brendon Bosworth is a High Country News intern.

Graph courtesy NOAA.

Image: A cod. Courtesy NOAA/NEFSC