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This is the mess that catch shares contained. As an environmental tool, catch shares have proven highly effective for Pacific groundfish. For fishermen who received quota in the system and continue to fish, they’ve also made fishing more predictable and, thus, safe. No one rushes to the sea to quickly catch as much as they can anymore, regardless of weather. The branding that comes with fishing cleaner and the power of ownership has also boosted prices for groundfish, making the jobs that remain better paying than before.
Think of catch share as a cap-and-trade system for fish; just as regulators commoditize greenhouse gases in the hopes that market forces will limit emissions, catch share allows anyone to buy and sell fishing quota, with the goal of improving wild-fish stocks.
Pacific hake, also called whiting, the most abundant commercial fish on the West Coast, is especially profitable this way, making up the flaky innards of imitation crab and other processed white-meat products. Whiting fishermen landed $20.3 million in product last year, dwarfing their pre catch share high of $6.7 million. Such rising values explain why guys like Riley Holt, a crewman on the Winona J, is buying his second house at age 27. When he started fishing, Holt earned $60,000 a year but has made roughly $90,000 annually under the catch share, working for a fishing family that owns quota
Brad Pettinger, director of the Oregon Trawl Commission, says stories like Holt’s — a satisfied young worker with a stable job for his wife and child on the way — are a world away from the tales of the old system. Today the biggest complaint whiting fishermen have about the industry is that it’s difficult to find quota and get in. By contrast, Pettinger remembers a California fisherman who tried to sell his boats and permits before talk of a catch share began. He went more than a year without a phone call — nobody was even curious about buying his business. Groundfish was too shaky an investment in the old system, where it was impossible to know how much fish a boat could catch and the fishing rules seemed to be constantly changing.
“That’s how bad things were. It really puts things in perspective as far as everybody complaining that it’s difficult to get into this fishery,” says Pettinger, who owns a hake boat and quota that is now managed by his brother, but whoknows too well the pains of the old system. “I’ve been in both fisheries. I’ve been in one that’s doing fairly well, and I’ve been in one that sucks. I never want to go back to one that sucks. I’d much rather be in a fishery that everybody would like to get into and can’t than one where anybody can get into and doesn’t.”
Pacific hake is now hovering on the edge of a sustainability certification from the Marine Stewardship Council, something that’s likely to pitch values further upward.
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