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Fishermen in catch share shuffle

Posted: Friday, Sep 17th, 2010

The F/V Blue Horizon trawler sits quietly at the port docks in Newport during the Wild Seafood Weekend held Sept. 11-12 to highlight the ocean’s harvest. Looming ahead for trawlers is a controversial catch share (quota) system, expected to go into effect in January 2011. The Pacific Fishery Management Council developed amendments to the Pacific Coast Groundfish Management Plan that establish the allocation system, and NOAA Fisheries approved the proposal in August. (Photo by Terry Dillman)

Doubts, rifts remain as trawlers face quota system

By Terry Dillman

Of the News-Times

NOAA Fisheries has approved a Pacific Fishery Management Council (PFMC) proposal to establish what’s known as a catch share - or quota - system for trawlers in the groundfish fishery. The proposal would amend the Pacific Coast Groundfish Fishery Management Plan that governs trawl groundfish harvests off the shore of Oregon, Washington, and California.

Agency officials said the proposed system would, for the first time ever, “make a major shift in how certain West Coast fish harvests are managed” - a change they say could benefit both fish and fishermen, and lead to “economic efficiencies that are difficult to obtain under traditional management schemes.”

They also said the system “has the support of the trawl industry” after undergoing a controversial process initiated by PFMC in 2003.

Slow-down technique

Sustainable fisheries are considered an “essential component” of national ocean policy, and a new NOAA policy adopted in 2009 supports catch shares as a way to manage fisheries at sustainable levels, and boost their economic performance. According to the agency, well-designed catch share programs “help rebuild fisheries and sustain fishermen, communities, and vibrant working waterfronts, including the cultural and resource access traditions that have been a part of this country since its founding.”

Advocates of catch shares say the current fishery management system of trip limits, area closures, and gear restrictions to protect and restore fish populations isn’t working. They say quotas are needed to revive fisheries and to protect and restore fishing communities and jobs, noting that catch shares decrease costs and boost fishermen’s revenue through greater efficiency, yields, and dockside prices.

“Catch shares can stop the race for fishermen to get out on the water and catch as many fish as fast as they can until a quota is reached,” said Will Stelle Jr., NOAA Fisheries Northwest regional administrator, noting that traditional methods create a situation of “too many vessels going after too few fish.”

NOAA wants to adopt two formal changes to the groundfish management plan that Steel said would enhance individual fishermen’s accountability, fully harvest the overall trawl fishermen’s quota, boost the fishery’s economic and biological stability, and sustain fishing jobs and fishing communities.

Catch share programs divvy up the total allowable catch into specific allocations - or shares - for fishermen, cooperatives, communities, processors, and others, who can only fish until they reach their assigned limit. Once they reach the limit, they must stop fishing. Shares are typically allocated based on historical participation levels in the fishery. The fishermen can decide how to catch their allotment when weather, markets, and their individual business conditions are most favorable.

New regulations would establish formal allocations for limited entry trawl participants, along with procedures for initial permit issuance, endorsements, and quota shares.

But not everyone is on board, and doubts and rifts remain.

Limits too low?

Opponents say quotas would decimate the fishery, calling it de facto privatization of a public resource, and another regulatory burden in an already over-regulated industry.

“Catch share” is a catch-all term for fishery management strategies that emphasize individually determined fishing quotas that require those who ply the oceans to stop fishing when they reach their specified limit. But more than a few fishermen consider it a Catch-22: they feel as if they are knowingly caught in rules, regulations, procedures or situations over which they have no control.

Fishermen have had access to the public process since PFMC members began their discussions and deliberations.

However, they “got into the process too late to smooth out some of the bumps,” said Rex Leach, who operates the F/V Ms. Julie out of Coos Bay. “It’s a steep learning curve for the fishermen and the government,” he added during an interview with the News-Times at the recent Wild Seafood Weekend at the Newport Bayfront.

While Leach favors the program’s objectives, he objects to some of the potential ramifications in the proposed set-up.

“Fishermen were promised the world again, that they would give fish back,” he noted. “In the end, it’s just another reduction, a huge reduction in what the fleet can catch, with nothing to show for it.”

Leach estimates that about 40 to 60 percent of the drag fleet will go away. “Will the ports that depend on them go away, too?” he said. “It’s all downsizing.” For him, downsizing the catch is the most vital issue. He believes the agencies went too far.

The ocean, he added, is “rich with fish,” pointing to excellent “catch-per-unit” numbers in pink shrimp, Dungeness crab, and groundfish fisheries. “As healthy as the ocean is, the quotas should be higher.” Economics is the reason.

Leach referred to the catch share system in British Columbia, Canada that is often touted as a shining example of how the quota system bodes well for everyone, including the fishermen. What’s missing in the discussions, he noted, is that the first two to three years of that system’s decade of existence were lean, mean times for the fishermen. Leach expects the same result here.

He said fishermen “couldn’t make it” on current market prices under the outlined limits of the proposed quota system. “When the price catches up to us, things will even out,” he added. Until then, he and others see rough seas ahead.

And none of those concerns takes into account the possible ripple effect of fishermen trying to diversify and hedge their bets by venturing into other fisheries.

Last chance

Deadline to submit comments on the proposed rule is Thursday, Sept. 30.

If Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke approves the final rule, which most observers consider a certainty, the catch share program would go into effect Jan. 1, 2011. To read and comment on the proposed rule, go to www.nwr,noaa.gov/Groundfish-Halibut/Groundfish-Fishery-Management/TrawlProgram/index.cfm.

NOAA’s Catch Share Policy

Mission statement

“To achieve long-term ecological and economic sustainability of the nation’s fishery resources and fishing communities, NOAA encourages the consideration and adoption of catch shares wherever appropriate in fishery management and ecosystem plans and amendments, and will support the design, implementation, and monitoring of catch share programs.”

Key components

• NOAA would not mandate use of catch shares in any commercial, recreational, or subsistence fishery.

• Individual fishery management councils would consult with fishing communities “to evaluate the data, effects, and enforceability of any potential catch share program before moving forward.” Councils could decide whether catch shares are or are not the most appropriate management option.

• NOAA would provide leadership and resources, and work in partnership with fishery management councils, states, and the public to help introduce catch shares. This includes assisting fishing communities in making the transition, and outreach (regional workshops, online seminars, and other educational efforts).

• Catch share programs can include a designation to set aside shares for allowing new participants into fisheries, including new generations of fishermen, small businesses, and others.

Terry Dillman is the assistant editor of the News-Times. Contact him at 541-265-8571, ext 225, or terrydillman@newportnewstimes.com.

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