Lawmakers Use Buyout Offer to Reel in West Coast Fishermen

Times Staff Writer

At a time when President Bush is trying to promote job growth, Congress has agreed to spend money to put scores of West Coast fishermen out of business.

Lawmakers defend their measure as being good for the fishermen -- not to mention for the fish.

To lure the fishermen out of the water, lawmakers have approved a program that would buy as much as half of the fleet used to catch groundfish, the name given to species found near the ocean floor. The idea is that by reducing competition, odds would improve for the remaining fishermen to prosper and for depleted stocks to return.


A massive spending bill was passed by Congress late Thursday on a 338-to-83 vote in the House and by 76 to 20 in the Senate. It authorizes a $50-million government-backed loan and a $10-million contribution toward the buyout of the fishing fleet.

“The situation playing out in California is emblematic of the larger crisis facing America’s ... fishing heritage,” said Leon E. Panetta, who long represented Monterey and Santa Cruz in Congress and is now chairman of the nonprofit Pew Oceans Commission. “The decline in our fisheries off California and all along our coasts is due to the simple fact that we catch more fish than nature can replace.”

The provision for fishermen is one of many projects packed into the 3,000-page, $397.4-billion measure to fund much of the government for the fiscal year that began more than four months ago.

The bill, which the president is expected to sign, would provide economic relief to various struggling business interests. There is $3.1 billion for drought-stricken farmers, as well as $60 million for those raising sugar cane, $53 million for tobacco growers and $18 million for citrus producers.

Most suffered losses attributable to nature. But others, including anglers from New England to Hawaii due to receive aid, contend that their troubles stem from government actions, such as fishing restrictions.

The bill provides a total of $100 million in aid to fishermen around the country, including the $10 million for the buyout of West Coast fishing vessels.


Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has questioned the $100-million appropriation, calling it a “handout” slipped into the bill without scrutiny. “We have no basis for determining how necessary this is, or whether or not this is sound policy,” McCain said.

Republican and Democratic lawmakers from California, Oregon and Washington say the funding is justified, at least for West Coast fishermen, because the government bears some responsibility for their plight.

Senators from the three states wrote to the lawmakers who brokered the spending bill, calling the buyout “an important step toward returning economic security and self-sufficiency to our coastal communities.”

In the 1970s, the government promoted fishing, in part by offering incentives for fishermen to buy bigger and better boats. But the result was too many boats chasing too few fish, prompting the government in recent years to severely limit the catch to protect dwindling species.

“We are in this mess because of government programs and policies,” said Peter Leipzig, executive director of the Eureka, Calif.-based Fishermen’s Marketing Assn. “The only way for this industry to become economically viable once again is to bring the size of our fleet into balance” with the amount of fish.

Indeed, the fishermen say they can’t survive without the assistance authorized in the spending bill.


“We’re running around the West Coast looking for a place to fish,” said Terry M. Rosaaen, owner of an 85-foot trawler that operates out of Crescent City, Calif., near the Oregon border.

With his income from fishing cut in half in recent years, Rosaaen has taken a job as a bookkeeper to survive.

Yet critics say buying boats won’t solve the crisis.

“Generally, when there is a major boat buyback in a fishery, the remaining boats usually increase their catch, thereby rendering the buyback useless,” said Keith Ashdown, vice president of policy for Taxpayers for Common Sense.

“Buybacks can be part of the solution,” he added, “but they have to be implemented as part of a bigger plan to fix fisheries management in America.”

Three years ago, then-Commerce Secretary William M. Daley declared the West Coast groundfish industry a “failure,” making the fishermen eligible for federal aid.

West Coast fishermen have seen catches for the industry go from a 20-year average of about 74,000 tons through the mid- 1990s to less than half that in recent years, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.


Under the buyout plan, as much as $50 million from the government-backed loan would be spent to buy trawlers that catch groundfish, which include a variety of rockfish, flatfish, Pacific cod and sablefish.

The loan would be repaid by those who continue fishing and benefit from the reduced competition. The $10 million included in the bill could be spent on top of the loan, if needed, or used to reduce the loan, according to congressional aides. Under the plan, fishermen would sell their boats only if they choose to do so.

The program’s goal is to buy up to half of the 273 trawlers that make up the West Coast groundfish industry. The boats average 50 to 75 feet in length and cost $350,000 to $750,000. The price paid to boat owners would be determined by many factors, including a vessel’s history of fishing revenue. Since 1995, the government has spent $140 million for similar buyout programs in Alaska, New England and the Pacific Northwest.

The overall spending bill -- which funds Cabinet departments from Agriculture to Veterans Affairs -- would increase spending for education and homeland defense and provide money for an overhaul of the nation’s election systems.

And despite the growing federal budget deficit, members of Congress found money for projects in their districts. They include $12 million for the Los Angeles Harbor channel deepening project, $3.3 million to remove thousands of bug-infested dead trees in the San Bernardino Mountains and $4 million to extend a rail line from downtown Los Angeles to the Eastside.