New fishery management program on West Coast gives fishermen greater flexibility and gives overfished species a break

Mar 07, 2013
This is Little Joe, the 75-foot trawler that Ralph Brown runs out of Brookings, Ore. Ralph Brown and Little Joe move more freely between Alaska and the Oregon Coast now that the West Coast groundfish fishery is managed using catch shares. Credit: Ralph Brown

Ralph Brown runs a 75-foot trawler, Little Joe, out of Brookings, Oregon. He fishes for pink shrimp, Dungeness crab, and groundfish, moving between the Oregon and Alaskan coastlines at different times of year. In 2011, the West Coast groundish fishery, which typically accounts for more than half of Brown's gross, converted to a catch shares system of management. As a result, for both Ralph Brown's business and for the groundfish he depends on, things are looking up.

Flexibility Is Up

Before the change, fishing for groundfish on the West Coast took place in two-month bouts. During each mini-season, fishermen would race to catch their limit before time ran out. This led to unsafe conditions on the water and to periodic gluts as boats all brought their catch to market at once.

Today, each fisherman or company is allocated a percentage of the year's total allowable catch for a . That share of the catch—the catch share—translates into the fisherman's individual quota for the year, and they can fish it whenever they like.

"The main thing is, it allows us to plan better," Ralph Brown said. "We're spreading out the supply with the other boats, so the processor gets an even flow, while we can go out shrimping or crabbing in between. Plus we do bigger trips, fewer of them, and more pounds."

Brent Paine, executive director of the United Catcher Boats Association, said his members benefit from the flexibility. "If the fishing's really bad and we're burning up a lot of fuel," he said, "we can hold off for a while until the fishing's better. In the old system, you would fish until your quota was over, no matter what."

The West Coast Groundfish Fishery includes Pacific whiting, Pacific cod, sablefish, and many species of and rockfish. In 2011, the first year of the catch share program, revenues came in at $54 million, up from a previous-five-year annual average of $38 million.

Bycatch Is Down

In the old system, fishermen were racing against the clock, so they didn't have the time to target fish carefully. As a result, they took on a lot of bycatch, which are fish that are caught unintentionally. To avoid fines at the dock, fishermen often discarded the bycatch, already dead, at sea.

Bycatch is a particularly tricky problem for groundfish trawlers because so many different species mingle on the bottom. There are more than 90 species in this fishery, and a fisherman never really knows what's in his net until it comes out of the water.

In the new system, fishermen are given an individual quota for all species. That includes both the ones they're targeting and the ones, because of low population numbers, that they need to avoid. But for those species, they get a very low quota—in some cases, so low that a single unlucky tow can put them over.

Today, they cannot toss those fish overboard. Instead, the fisherman must lease unused quota from someone else to cover the difference, or pay it back out of the next year's allotment. Until they do, they're locked out of the fishery. This gives fishermen a strong incentive to avoid certain species of fish. It also insures that, even when an individual fisherman exceeds his target—which is bound to happen sometimes in a complex groundfish fishery—the total catch for the fleet stays within the limit.

This system is effective because every boat now has an observer on board. The observer identifies and weighs everything that comes up in the net, and makes sure that every pound is accounted for.

According to Paine, all members of the United Catcher Boats Association get together to strategize before the season starts. "If one area is really hot for canary rockfish," Paine says, naming a rare species with a very low catch limit, "we'll draw lines around that hotspot and agree not to fish there. So we have closure zones that are generated by the boat captains themselves."

Also, fishermen have an incentive to innovate. If they manage to avoid species with very low catch limits, they can lease their unused quota pounds to someone else. "People have been experimenting with different net styles in order to become more selective in their catch, because we know that individually we can benefit" Ralph Brown says.

Since the catch share system was put in place in 2011, the whiting fleet has reduced bycatch of canary rockfish by 79 percent. Overall discards for the entire groundfish fishery in 2011 were a very low 4.8 percent. Because of this, overfished populations are getting a chance to rebuild.

Looking Forward

Catch shares provides a combination of flexibility and accountability that leads to a more efficient and sustainable fishery. The West Coast Groundfish Trawl Catch Share Program is proving to be a model system of management. The program was created through a collaboration of the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission, the Pacific Fishery Management Council, the states, and NOAA Fisheries.

These partners will continue to fine-tune the program. But already, things are looking up. "From my perspective, it's been pretty successful," Ralph Brown said. "It's way better than what we had before."

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