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The dryly dubbed Pacific Coast Groundfish Trawl Rationalization, as this catch share is called, has put 64 kinds of rockfish, 12 flatfish like lingcod, six roundfish and others in the hands of private citizens and corporations. The rules they now play by reach 200 miles into the sea from the southern tip of California to the north end of Washington. Mirroring similar programs in Alaska for pollack and crab (think Filet-O-Fish sandwiches and The Deadliest Catch), to the iconic cod industry of New England, this is the 15th program of its kind in the U.S. All told, these catch shares control more than 50% of the value of domestic seafood.
The catch-share program’s success in protecting species that used to be collateral damage in groundfishing is striking. Bycatch — or accidental catch — has gone from 20% or 25% to 4.8% of the total haul from the seafloor. In just 36 months, West Coast fishermen have proven catch sharing can indeed be the environmental boon its advocates tout. Some fishermen have fared wonderfully in this equation, running more predictable, profitable and sustainable seafood businesses.
In three years on the West Coast, however, catch shares have also squeezed the number of boats that can go fishing, and divided fishermen into the ones who own the right to go to sea and the ones who rent it. Some fishermen don’t fish at all anymore, instead doling out their quotas to intrepid young workers at a price. That trend has some longtime fishermen worried.
“I’ve seen the fleet go from where virtually every boat represented one family business … to now where some processors and other entities control significant fleets and hold large amounts of quota in groundfish. Now anyone, regardless of fishing-industry history or sweat equity, can own quota,” says Bob Eder, a Newport fisherman, commenting on purchasing trends as some fishermen sell.
He says the catch share has opened up new opportunities for his business aboard the Timmy Boy, owing to incentives that allow trawlers to use traps instead of nets to promote cleaner fishing methods with less bycatch. That makes it possible for trap boats like his to participate and catch more fish, if they also own trawl permits, a separate license required to fish in the catch-share system.
Despite his success, Eder is concerned about harvesters eventually fading as owners. “We may become more like jobbers or sharecroppers,” he says. “This is disturbing, particularly the tall challenge it could create for a next generation of fishermen to become owner/operators. Much capital is required to acquire not just the boat but the permits, and, most critically, the quota.”
It used to be that anybody could play in this industry. You got a boat. You got a net. You took to the sea and went fishing, dragging the seafloor for fish to sell on the docks. There were too many boats this way, though. And not enough fish. So the outcome was what anybody could have predicted: too much slippery carnage. In 2003 regulators from the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) sought to contain it by buying 91 of the boats. There was still too much carnage. By 2010 they were opening a new season every two months, setting firm caps on what could be caught in each. Fishermen did what anybody does in that scenario: They rushed to catch as much as they could before regulators cut them off. They also developed a habit of throwing back the too-small fish, keeping the bigger ones that sold better and leaving a lot of blood in the water. No surprise that this management method didn’t work either.
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