A Golden Opportunity for California Fishing Jobs

A little over 160 years ago, the glint of gold in a saw mill sluice caught James Marshall’s eye and the race was on. Traveling by sailboat and covered wagon, prospectors arrived to California in droves, seeking fortune. But within a few years, the most easily accessible gold had been extracted and more and more prospectors returned home with empty pockets. 

California’s fisheries have gone through similar boom and bust cycles. In 1939, the state’s annual catch weighed in at 1.3 billion pounds. Since then, the fisheries off California’s coast have dramatically declined. In 2008 the catch was only 384 million pounds. Some species — most varieties of abalone, sardines and mackerel, for example — have experienced full collapse in recent years. The California salmon fishery is on life support. And revenues from the Pacific groundfish trawl fishery that include soles and cod as well as deep-water “rockfish” like colorful canary and thorny heads fell by more than half from 1997 to 2007, from $47.3 million to $22.2 million along the West Coast. 

Groundfish fishing was once the backbone of California’s fishing ports, but declining groundfish harvests have severely impacted fishing infrastructure and impacted jobs. California’s once-vibrant fishing communities have withered.  There is promise on the horizon, however. Faced with the stark failure of business-as-usual, West Coast fishery managers have had their own ‘Eureka!’ moment: that a well designed catch share program could turn the groundfish fishery around.

 In 2008, the Pacific Fishery Management Council unanimously voted to implement catch shares in the groundfish trawl fishery off the coast of California, Oregon and Washington. As the name implies, catch shares dedicate a percentage of the annual allowable catch to an individual fisherman, fishing cooperatives, or a community. The government sets and enforces overall annual harvest limits, and fishermen are free to find the most profitable way to fish, up to their annual quotas.

Catch shares have a proven track record for turning around declining fisheries. The journal Science published a study that looked at more than 11,000 fisheries worldwide, of which 121 were managed using catch shares. The authors found that catch share management can halt and even reverse decades of decline in the world’s fisheries. A follow-up study in Nature shows that as fisheries recovered under catch share management, the sustainable harvest grew and, on average, quadrupled within a decade. 

The groundfish catch share program is in the final stages and can begin to go to work to rebuild our coastal fisheries and fishing communities when it hits the water in early 2011. The new program requires at-sea observers on every vessel and includes provisions for fishermen to be able to switch to different gear types that allow them to more selectively fish, therefore allowing beleaguered fish species to recover.  EDF is working hard to bring resources to help fishermen succeed in this new program. Implementing the catch share fishery here and getting it right is a golden opportunity to help rebuild our groundfish stocks, bring back fishing jobs, and make sustainable fishing the most profitable form of fishing in the Golden State.

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