The Future of the Pacific Groundfish Trawl Fishery Without the Catch Share Program

Merrick Burden - Senior Fisheries Economist

Merrick Burden - Senior Fisheries Economist

Fishermen in the Pacific groundfish trawl fishery are understandably anxious about the transition to catch shares that starts January 2011, but it’s helpful to consider what is likely to happen if the fishery is left under current management. Perhaps the biggest problem facing fishermen and fishery managers is that eight out of over 90 species caught by fishermen are overfished.  To protect these overfished species, fishery managers have closed parts of the ocean to fishing by creating “Rockfish Conservation Areas” that have changed shape in response to locations of overfished species.  In recent years, productive fishing grounds off Washington and southern Oregon have been among the areas closed.  If current management were to continue there would likely be more closures off other areas of the coast.

I’ve had the experience of working as a fishery manager in the Pacific commercial groundfish fishery for over 6 years and have seen how the existing management system is slowly suffocating the industry and fishing communities. Avoiding closures is just one reason why I see the groundfish trawl IFQ (catch share) program as progress in Pacific groundfish fishery management.

The most salient example of the kind of negative impacts occurring to the fishery under current management is to look at how the Pacific Fishery Management Council acted to handle accidental catches (bycatch) of overfished species in 2007 and 2008, specifically to reduce the catch of canary rockfish in the trawl fishery. At that time, new data showed that bycatch was higher than anticipated.  Managers were faced with two decisions: implement a wide ranging restriction that would affect the entire trawl fishery north of Cape Mendocino, or implement a more tailored measure that completely shut down fishing grounds off northern Washington and southern Oregon (where a lot of canary are found), leaving the broader fishery relatively intact.

During this process, several fishermen pleaded with management staff and the Pacific Fishery Management Council to let them show that they could fish cleanly and avoid canary rockfish.  While the data illustrated that some vessels could fish cleanly, the data also showed that other vessels could not.  Since the current management system did not allow the Council to implement management measures differently across different vessels, the Council did not have the option of allowing the relatively clean vessels to fish while shutting out the vessels with higher bycatch.

In the end, the Council elected to close more discreet areas of the coast to all bottom trawling, saving the broader fishery, but putting several long standing fishing enterprises out of business.  Some of those fishermen tried to move, but couldn’t fish effectively in new grounds.  Others simply sold their permits and vessels, fired their crew, and left.  Some of the kindest and best fishermen in the fishery were put out of business with no compensation or recourse.  Of course, we can’t really fault the Council for that decision.  They really had no other choice given the legal requirements to rebuild overfished species and the limitations of the management system.

Looking forward, available data from the fishery shows relatively high bycatch of overfished species off southern Oregon, northern California, and areas around the Monterey canyon, just to name a few.  Pacific groundfish managers are constantly exploring ways to reduce bycatch of overfished species, but under the existing management structure, their only recourse is to expand area closures in those regions or further reduce trip limits.

Based on the location of these relatively high bycatch areas, communities from Coos Bay down past Monterey could all be affected by such restrictions.  Over the last year, for example, the management staff were contemplating expanded closures in an area south of San Francisco bay, down toward Morro Bay to protect bocaccio and cowcod (two overfished species), which would have had negatively impacted the fishing industry and coastal communities in those same areas.

Holding fishermen individually accountable for bycatch appears to be the best alternative to these types of management restrictions.  The trawl catch share program will enable the cleaner vessels to continue fishing instead of subjecting those vessels to further area closures as a result of behavior by vessels with higher bycatch.  While the catch share program will create new challenges to fishermen as they adapt to the program, the status quo alternative does not appear to be economically or socially sustainable.

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