A sea change for West Coast fisheries

Weiss is a Times staff writer.

After years of lax rules and wasteful practices that led to an economic disaster, fishery managers have decided to adopt a new approach to some of the West Coast’s largest fisheries: give fishermen exclusive rights to a portion of the overall catch.

The Pacific Fishery Management Council voted unanimously Friday to make a historic shift in strategy that encourages cooperation, rather than competition, among fishermen who drag nets to catch cod, whiting, rockfish, flounder and sole.

The new approach, often called “individual fishing quotas,” will give commercial fishermen from Morro Bay on California’s Central Coast to Puget Sound in Washington state the right to bring in their portion of the catch when the seas are safe and they can command higher prices.


It will also eliminate rules that forced fishermen to shovel tons of dead fish overboard because they didn’t have permits to sell particular species inadvertently caught in their nets.

Advocates of this approach, which has been used successfully in Alaska and elsewhere, believe that this can help turn around West Coast fisheries. In January 2000, the federal government formally declared these fisheries an economic disaster, the culmination of decades of overfishing. Since then, managers have attempted to restrict catches and buy out fishing boats -- actions that brought only marginal recovery of fish stocks.

“We expect in five to 10 years this will be one of the best-managed fisheries in the country,” said Johanna Thomas, Pacific Ocean policy director of the Environmental Defense Fund.

The quota system will not be implemented until 2011 and must first be approved by the National Marine Fisheries Service, the government agency that regulates fisheries. The federal government typically defers decisions about regulating commercial catches to regional fishery management councils, which are quasi-governmental organizations dominated by fishing interests.

The shift to individual fish quotas comes after recent scientific studies showing that the system has a way of encouraging fishermen to be better stewards of the resource. It tends to end the dangerous race to catch fish before another boat does and has helped stocks rebound.

Still, such a program cannot work without government setting restrictions on overall catches, scientists say, nor can it attack another fundamental problem: too many boats chasing too few fish.

In most catch-share programs, the industry tends to consolidate into fewer vessels, as some fishermen sell their quotas to competitors and cash out of the business. That anticipated contraction has led to objections by one fishing group that contended that it would turn fishermen into the equivalent of “sharecroppers” working for a plantation.

The new management plan also will allow the Nature Conservancy, which has bought a number of these fishing permits in Morro Bay and Half Moon Bay, to switch to a different type of fishing gear that is less destructive than dragging nets across the rocky seafloor. Few commercial boats trawl the bottom for fish in Southern California waters because the stocks are so depleted.

It also adopts a different approach to cut down on the wasteful problem of “bycatch,” the accidental netting of species that are so overfished they are off limits to commercial fishermen. The problem is that more than 80 species of bottom-dwelling rockfish, cod and other groundfish tend to mix together and can end up in the same net.

“Right now, fishermen are forced to discard the overfished species,” said Jim Seger, an economist with the Pacific fishery council. Under the new program, federal observers would tally all fish and count the overfished species against quotas and limits. “Since they will be counted as dead, the fishermen could bring them in and sell them.”