West Coast council approves overhaul of commercial fishing
Pacific Northwest commercial fishing will undergo a major overhaul aimed at creating a more sustainable, profitable and less-wasteful harvest under a new plan approved by a federal council.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Pacific Northwest commercial fishing will undergo a major overhaul aimed at creating a more sustainable, profitable and less-wasteful harvest under a plan approved by a federal council late Friday.
The new system — scheduled to take effect in 2011 — will vest more than 100 trawl-boat owners with individual shares for dozens of different species.
The plan gives fishermen the option of catching their allocation each year, selling their shares, or purchasing someone else's fishing shares to help fill up their boat holds.
"I think that this is the biggest thing that has happened in the trawl fisheries in my lifetime," said Mark Cooper, a Newport, Ore., fisherman who operates two boats that will receive shares under the plan unanimously approved in San Diego by the Pacific Fishery Management Council.
The plan — in a precedent-setting and controversial move — also will vest fish processors with 20 percent of the hake catch that is delivered to plants.
Hake, also known as whiting, is the largest volume fishery, and it sustains a major seafood plant in Westport, Grays Harbor, that employs hundreds and generates more than $100 million in products.
The trawlers that work off the Oregon, Washington and California coasts net about 80 different species of seafood, and Friday's plan represents one of the most complicated harvest reforms attempted in U.S. waters.
Its fate will be watched closely by fishing fleets in other parts of the nation contemplating quota programs to bolster declining fish stocks.
"This is a watershed moment for West Coast fishing," said Johanna Thomas, the Pacific Ocean policy director for the Environmental Defense Fund. "Fishermen have struggled to make a living under ineffective regulations that weren't working for the fish or the fishermen."
The trawl fisheries catch sole, rockfish, ling cod and black cod for U.S. and international markets.
The fisheries boomed in the 1980s after foreign fleets were pushed out of Northwest waters. In recent years, they have struggled with declining harvests and the collapse of several rockfish stocks that have required much tighter restrictions.
Until now, the fisheries have been managed by limiting seasons to two months for most species, with separate openings for whiting.
This system has frustrated fishermen for years. In their race to fill their holds, they often accidentally catch fish from depressed species, like the rockfish, exceed their trip limits or scoop up large volumes of lower-value seafood. Much of this bycatch — dead and dying fish — is discarded.
Conservationists are hoping the new system will greatly reduce bycatch. The new system will put federal observers on every trawler, rather than just a portion of the fleet.
Under the share program, fishermen — based upon their catch history — will be vested with privately owned rights to the fish. Share percentages will be fixed as the plan is finalized.
Each year, the amount of fish each shareholder can catch will be determined by biologists assessing the health of the species.
The biggest battle in adopting the new plan has been over how to allocate the initial shares.
Pacific Northwest fish processors have argued that their investments in shore plants were key to the success of fishermen and the stability of some coastal communities, and they lobbied fiercely to gain some of the initial catch shares.
The 14-voting member council — a mix of seafood-industry representatives and state and federal officials — balked at giving the processors quota shares for most species. Instead they vested fishermen with 90 percent of the rights for these species, and reserved 10 percent for an "adaptive management" program to help communities adjust to the harvest changes.
But the council also awarded processors 20 percent of the Pacific whiting harvest that is delivered to shore plants.
West Coast processors said they needed a share to ensure a reliable supply of whiting. Otherwise, share-holding fishermen could sell all the shares to fishermen and plants in other areas, leaving some plants with no fish to process.
Many fishermen are unhappy with the decision to vest processors, and they question whether it will survive Justice Department scrutiny as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which regulates the fisheries, moves to finalize the plan.
"The council moved in the right direction, but they are still making a terrible mistake," said Pete Leipzig, executive director of the Fishermen's Marketing Association, which represents the groundfish fleet.
Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or email@example.com. Information from The Associated Press was included in this story
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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