After seven years of planning, the catch share program for the Pacific groundfish trawl sector has cleared one of its final regulatory hurdles. On Tuesday, NOAA's Fisheries Service approved the plan submitted by the Pacific Fisheries Management Council to revitalize the multi-million dollar fishery. The new system joins a spate of other new catch share programs around the country, including one for the iconic New England groundfish fishery and the grouper and red snapper fishery in the Gulf of Mexico.
In the West Coast groundfish sector, fishermen have struggled to make a living under the current management system and have been plagued by increasingly strict regulations to address the incidental catch (bycatch) of depleted fish species. Landings for West Coast trawlers had plummeted 70 percent in the last two decades, and since 1998 revenues have dropped from $47.3 million to $22.2 million.
The new system provides fishermen with a guaranteed percentage of the overall catch, based on the size of their vessel and their fishing history. Under catch shares, fishermen will have much greater freedom to fish when they want, and will also be able to sell or lease their shares to other fishermen. Based on results from other fisheries that have transitioned to catch shares, bycatch is expected to drop dramatically for the West Coast trawl fleet, allowing fish stocks and the industry to recover from years of decline.
We applaud both NOAA and the Pacific Fishery Management Council for taking this important step. This is a new day for a fishery that was declared a disaster just ten years ago. From now on, West Coast trawlers will not be in a rush to fish and deliver their catch. Instead, they will time their trips in accordance with both weather and market forecasts, maximizing their profits while fishing in a safer, more efficient, and sustainable way.
The approved plan includes precedent-setting provisions aimed at protecting coastal communities and the environment. There are several features in the plan that makes it stand out as a model for sustainable and adaptive fisheries management. The Council and NOAA have seen to it that fishermen and coastal communities have a real say in how they adopt new practices and adapt to the catch share system.
Years from now, when we look back on this moment, we’ll see that this was a turning point for West Coast trawlers and the groundfish species they harvest.