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Originally published June 30, 2012 at 8:01 PM | Page modified June 30, 2012 at 9:10 PM

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Dividing the catch: Controversial quota system results in fewer fish being discarded at sea

During a six-year period that ended in 2010, federal managers estimate that trawlers dumped more than 67 million pounds of fish, equaling about 20 percent of the catch of marketable species. Under the new system, the waste has plummeted.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Graphic: Fish discards decline

Click to see an enlarged version of the graphic.

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ABOARD THE IRON LADY —

On a blustery afternoon off the Southwest Washington coast, skipper Kevin Dunn hauls up a net from the ocean bottom and dumps a pungent potpourri of black cod, Dover sole, rockfish and other sea life onto the deck.

Two deckhands sort, store and ice more than 3,000 pounds of fish that will be brought back to a shoreside processor.

Meanwhile, a biologist takes charge of the unwanted discards: a meager 40 pounds of sea stars, eelpouts and other unmarketable catch. He notes their species and weight before tossing them overboard.

These observers, largely paid by the federal government, are required to be aboard West Coast bottom-trawl boats whenever they drop nets — part of a radical overhaul of a troubled commercial-harvest system long plagued by overfishing and waste.

The new system divides the allowable catch among boat owners, giving each shares to 29 bottom-dwelling species.

The shares can be used by the owner, or eventually leased or sold like shares of stock, with their values tied to the health of the fisheries. Each pound of fish caught under this system — whether it is dumped or brought back to shore — is tracked by the federal observers. "This is a new day," said Dunn, 54, a fisherman whose boat is home-ported in Warrenton, Ore. "We're living under total accountability."

The catch-share system replaces a convoluted management system that fined fishermen for bringing too much fish back to port, and thus encouraged them to throw out the excess at sea.

During a six-year period that ended in 2010, federal managers estimate that trawlers dumped more than 67 million pounds of fish, equaling about 20 percent of the catch of marketable species.

Under the new system, the waste has plummeted.

In 2011, the first year of this plan covering more than 100 trawlers, less than 6 percent of the marketable species went overboard, according to preliminary statistics. For the fishermen, revenue in 2011 went up. The total catch was worth more than $31 million, a 14 percent boost from recent year averages.

The switch also has spurred innovation.

Some fishermen have opted to set their nets aside when pursuing high-value species such as black cod. Instead, they use pot traps, more selective gear that brings fishermen higher fish prices from processors.

Some are experimenting with net configurations that try to exclude species they don't want, and they use underwater cameras to monitor what happens. Other fishermen who once fiercely competed now share information about areas to stay away from to avoid catching overfished species.

"This is a really big deal," said Will Stelle, Northwest regional administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service. "It is restructuring the architecture of the fishery, building in very real and powerful incentives to do the right thing."

Changes in Northwest

The changes in the Northwest are part of the Obama administration's broader and often bitterly contested effort to make the catch-share system a cornerstone of federal fishery management.

Fifteen catch-share programs are already operating and more are under consideration by regional fishery councils. But dividing a public resource among private fishermen is controversial, creating winners and losers, and often resulting in smaller fleets.

In Alaska, for example, king crab deckhands who risked their lives for years weathering Bering Sea storms ended up without any shares when that program took effect in 2005. Meanwhile, some boat owners retired and earned money leasing their quotas.

On the East Coast, some commercial fishermen and sport-fishing charter-boat operators have railed against the new system as a scheme foisted upon them by an alliance between the federal government and environmentalists who want to hamstring their industry.

Their suspicions have been stoked by the résumé of NOAA administrator Jane Lubchenco, a key Obama appointee championing catch shares.

Before joining NOAA, Lubchenco, an Oregon State University marine ecologist, served as vice chair of the board of the Environmental Defense Fund, which has long advocated for catch shares to help combat overfishing.

This year, opponents scored a success in May, when the U.S. House passed an amendment that prohibits the use of federal funds for new catch-share programs not already approved off the Atlantic Coast and Gulf of Mexico.

"Catch-share programs are no different from any other inside-the-Beltway style tactic determined to destroy every aspect of American freedom under the guise of conservation," wrote Rep. Michael Grimm, R-N.Y., and Rep. Steve Southerland, R-Florida, in a letter to colleagues before the vote.

They wrote: "Gifting a select few with shares of the annual catch, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is privatizing access to a once-open fishery."

In the Northwest, fishermen also have concerns.

Cost is near the top of their list. The federal government pays more than $300 a day for the observers. But that subsidy is scheduled to be phased out in the years ahead, with expenses transferred to fishermen.

"I just don't know how we're going to cover all the costs," said Dunn, skipper of the Iron Lady. "There needs to be more profit in the harvest."

Regulations remain a sore spot. Some cumbersome rules set up under the old system have yet to fade away and hamper efforts to improve the harvest under the new system.

A group of fishermen and processors disputed how fish were divided, arguing in a federal lawsuit that not enough weight was given to recent harvests. This year, they gained a ruling that requires the National Marine Fisheries Service to work on a new allocation plan for whiting delivered to shoreside processors.

But in the Northwest, there also is significant support for the catch-share program.

The plan evolved from years of negotiations among fishermen, processors and others with a stake in the fisheries.

Environmentalists have played a high-profile role in the region's switch to catch shares.

The Environmental Defense Fund has a representative on the federal fishery council that crafted the plan. The organization has financed fishermen workshops to discuss the challenges of the new harvest system and paid for tests of experimental gear to reduce discards.

In a surprising twist, The Nature Conservancy emerged as the single largest holder of the catch shares, with an allocation this year of more than 12 million pounds. Its shares are the result of the group's 2006 acquisition of 13 trawl permits in a deal that led to protections for bottom areas off California.

The Nature Conservancy now leases the quotas to fishermen who are taking steps to harvest cleaner.

"We do not believe in holding back fish from the industry," said Michael Bell, a marine project director with The Nature Conservancy. "We want to create incentives to drive change and lead to a sustainable fishery."

Undersea terrain

The Northwest shift to catch shares comes after a decade of other efforts to try to prevent overfishing and reduce damage that can occur as nets are dragged along the sea bottom.

The undersea terrain off the West Coast supports a stunningly diverse marine population, which includes more than 50 species of rockfish, that contribute to the harvests, several of which can live past the century mark.

Currently, seven species of rockfish and one of flatfish are considered overfished. To protect these populations and key habitat such as undersea coral, fishermen have been required to modify some of their trawl gear.

They also have been shut out of more than 40 sensitive areas off the West Coast, including a large conservation zone that changes seasonally.

Some marine biologists say still more protections are needed. That concerns Dunn.

"We got a lot of areas where fish can go to be safe," Dunn said. "I don't know when enough is enough."

Dunn has been working off the Northwest coast since the 1990s, when he tired of months away from home fishing in Alaska.

His two crew members and the observer work day and night, consuming cold cuts, energy drinks and an occasional bowl of Cocoa Puffs during ocean trips that typically last three to four days.

Dunn builds nets, and has an intimate knowledge of the habits of Northwest bottom fish. His boat, owned by a Southwest Washington couple, has the right to net more than 2.7 million pounds this year, one of the largest shares in the fleet.

During a spring trip, he fished off the mouth of the Columbia River, where the outrush of silt-laden fresh water creates a huge dark tongue that protrudes into the Pacific. More than 2,000 feet underneath the boat lay a sea-bottom gorge, known as the Astoria Canyon, that is rich in fish.

Dunn generally knows what species to expect on canyon tows. The catch includes black cod, which fetch the highest price per pound, and Dover sole, a less valuable flatfish that is his biggest volume harvest.

But his net is a blunt tool. It rolls along the bottom with the help of rubber bobbins, the mouth measuring some 90-feet across and narrowing into a tighter bag known as the cod-end.

The fishermen face their toughest trawling challenges as they move closer to shore. In this shallow-water zone along the continental shelf, what stays out of the net has become just as important as what goes in.

Fishermen try to avoid scooping up lots of undersized fish that count against their quota but are too small for processors. They also try to shun scarce species of rockfish.

Yelloweye rockfish, for example, is so depleted that Dunn has a quota of only 27 pounds.

If the observer finds Dunn has netted more than that, he must stop fishing until he acquires additional quota from other fishermen. If he can't buy the additional shares, his boat is through for the year.

Dunn stays out of areas near the coast that the yelloweye favor. So far, he and other fishermen have been remarkably successful in keeping these fish out of their nets. This year, the entire fleet has caught only 9 pounds of yelloweye.

"Yelloweye was the one that we all thought would kill us," Dunn said. "It hasn't turned out that way."

Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or hbernton@seattletimes.com

Seattle Times reporter Justin Mayo and Seattle Times researcher David Turim contributed

to this report.

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