Buy the Fleet to Save Fishery

Times Staff Writer

Mike Waldrop is hanging up his nets. The 56-year-old ground fisherman from Coos Bay, Ore., has sold his trawling permit and gear to the U.S. as part of a $46-million buyout to save a devastated West Coast fishery.

Ground fishermen in Washington state, Oregon and California voted overwhelmingly for the buyout, announced this week, which will reduce the Pacific ground-fishing fleet by more than a third. The government, through the National Marine Fisheries Service, bought 92 of the fleet's 260 trawlers, among them Waldrop's 75-footer, Captain Jack.

Waldrop and the others who took the buyout must pull up their nets for the last time on Dec. 3.

Pete Leipzig, director of the Fishermen's Marketing Assn., a trawler organization based in Eureka, Calif., that lobbied for the program, called the vote a "landmark event" that could turn things around for the Pacific fishery.

The term groundfish refers to species that feed at or near the ocean bottom, such as red snapper, whiting and flounder. Federal regulators say several species have been nearly wiped out by overfishing, and harvests have plummeted from their 1982 peaks.

As catches shrank and profits dropped, fishermen struggled to make ends meet and found it difficult to sell their permits and boats. The buyout aimed to pay each fisherman the value of his boat plus one year's earnings. The average approved payout per fishermen was about $460,000. Much of the money will be used to pay off boat loans.

The 92 who took the buyout included the most productive fishermen in the fleet. Leipzig said the group accounted for nearly half the fleet's annual take over the last several years. By taking them out of the fleet, the program aims to make it possible for the remaining fishermen to increase their catches by reducing the competition.

"This program will certainly translate into more fishermen making money," Leipzig said.

Waldrop, vice president of the Coos Bay Trawlers Assn., was more cautious. He said the program would pay off only if federal regulators kept their promise and allowed larger catches for the remaining fishermen. Talks for increasing catch limits are underway. New limits could be implemented as early as January.

West Coast fishermen lobbied for the buyout for a decade, soon after it became clear there were too many boats and not enough fish. The government promoted fishing in the 1970s, offering incentives for fishermen to buy new boats.

Leipzig said officials in other overfished regions have contacted him about initiating buyouts, among them ground fishermen in New England and shark fishermen in Florida. West Coast Dungeness crab fishermen are also weighing it. The U.S. government, since 1995, has spent nearly $200 million in such buyouts.

For fishermen like Waldrop and Scotty Hockema of Coos Bay, a longtime fisherman who sold both his boats in the buyout, the program is a mixed blessing. It relieves them of financial pressure, but it also forces them to turn away from a lifelong vocation.

Waldrop, a fisherman for 35 years, said he's not sure what he's going to do next. "I'm still exploring options," he said.

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