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Early signs of consolidation are apparent in Pacific groundfish. Of 118 trawl vessels that were active in 2011, when the catch share began, 105 vessels fished in 2012, a number that’s likely to decline as more quota owners switch from fishing to renting. Today rules make it possible for anyone — even a banker from Kansas City or another large equity fund — to own the Pacific groundfish quota. While it’s impossible to say where the trend will lead, it’s one that causes concern.
What is clear, however, is that the catch share comes with built-in bottlenecks and economic challenges that will make it tough for some fishermen to stay in the industry as it transitions.
Some groundfish boats haven’t fared as well as the whiting operations, which are seeing the value of that product rise, or new entrants like Lapham and Eder, who are augmenting existing, successful portfolios by fishing in the catch share. For those fishing other groundfish like perch or Dover and petrale sole, fishing is now a lot like playing Jenga: One wrong move and the whole enterprise can topple.
There are 206 million pounds of whiting quota, but only 169 million pounds of quota for all other species of groundfish combined. As skipper Wade Hearne tells it, if you catch more than your share, particularly of certain species, it’s game over. That sounds easier to manage than it really is. Hearne’s painting knot dips on the nets aboard the Last Straw while he explains how the boat — his father’s — has a “ton of quota” for the Dover sole it catches. But because the boat drags the bottom, and because the catch share is built to reduce impacts on fish typically hit hard by dragging, quota is in short supply in eight species that might be caught up in the nets. Bocaccio, cowcod, petrale sole, Pacific perch, and yelloweye, widow, canary and darkblotched rockfish are all struggling.
“The amount of quota is not enough for it to really support the industry where it’s a bycatch,” says Hearne. For this reason, quota of these species rent, not at less than what you could sell a fish at the dock for, but for the kind of costly price people pay for insurance policies. “If you go out to lease it, you’re going to be leasing it for more than what the plant pays for it. You’re buying it not for profit but to keep your risks down and stay within the rules.”
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