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BY LEE VAN DER VOO | PHOTOS BY JOSEPH EASTBURN*
The catch-share fisheries management system is designed to boost wild fish stocks. Will the new program leave fishermen adrift?
Gangion Lapham is 4 years old. And when you’re 4 and your dad owns a 66-foot combination boat, the Michele Ann, your world is a life-sized jungle gym. You speed through the traps on the deck, ferrying messages to the crew. You sit in the captain’s chair and whisper to yourself. You jump ladders, reverse course, dive down and poke your head in the galley windows.
Life on a boat is pretty good. When you’re 4. When you’re 40. When you’re 71. This generation gap means more than it used to, however. Gangion Lapham was born a year and a half before policy radically remade Pacific groundfishing (fishing for cod, haddock and other predators that live on or near the ocean floor). As those changes retool the industry, it’s hard to say whether life on this boat will one day be as good for him as it has been for his father.
The Michele Ann hails from Newport. It’s a powerhouse in the groundfish industry, sales of which garnered $54 million on the West Coast in 2011. The trawl boats that rule this sector, giant draggers with steel gates and huge nets hanging from the rear, were the targets of recent changes. Too many and too deadly, they were squeezed from 274 to 183 in 2003 to ease the pressure on fish. Over the past three years, in an effort to move it to a more sustainable fishing model, their industry has been slowly remade from one for seafaring entrepreneurs into a commodities market, one in which boats like the Michele Ann, formerly ascribed separate rules, can now play.
This is the new face of oceanic environmentalism: catch shares. It’s an aquatic revolution on a scale the U.S. has never seen. Catch shares aim to convert fisheries to sustainable fishing by capping the amount of fish that can be caught and awarding the rights to fish them, called a quota, to stakeholders, unless those stakeholders choose to sell it. In this case, fishermen and processors share the bounty, save for a tiny set-aside for research. The downside is that, as privatization becomes the policy path to seafood salvation in America, the costs of fishing are rising dramatically. As a result, groundfishing could evolve from a small business to a wage job. And in a generation or two, that could ultimately place control of a natural resource in the hands of big business and private equity firms.
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