Fish & Wildlife | Ecotrope

How environmentalists are reshaping a West Coast fishery

Ecotrope | Feb. 18, 2011 6:38 p.m. | Updated: Feb. 19, 2013 1:40 p.m.

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A program launched by The Nature Conservancy here, in California's Morro Bay, is giving the environmental group a unique power to reshape the West Coast groundfish fishery under new catch share management rules.

A program launched by The Nature Conservancy here, in California's Morro Bay, is giving the environmental group a unique power to reshape the West Coast groundfish fishery under new catch share management rules.

Something strange is happening on West Coast fishing docks.

Fishermen are teaming up with environmentalists to make sure their businesses survive a major shift in groundfish regulations. They’re agreeing to fish more carefully, avoid fishing in some parts of the ocean and share their insights on the best places to fish.

Meanwhile, environmentalists that once aimed to take groundfish boats off the water are now working on a plan to keep them fishing.

It all stems from the transition to catch shares – the Obama administration’s solution to overfishing.

In January, $40 million worth of West Coast groundfish was divvied up among 167 permit holders, who are now free to fish their shares when they please. They can also buy, sell and trade shares of fish like stocks on a stock market. But the boats have to keep everything they catch, and if they catch more than their share they have to buy shares from other fishermen to cover their overages.

In an unusual twist, The Nature Conservancy has turned out to be one of the fishery’s largest shareholders under the catch share program. The 13 fishing permits the group purchased to shrink the environmental impact of the fishery add up to a 7 percent ownership share, putting TNC in a unique position to shape the future of West Coast groundfish. And according to TNC’s Groundfish Program Director Michael Bell, that’s exactly what the group intends to do.

Some say The Nature Conservancy’s plan for reshaping the fishery is the best hope of saving fishing communities from losing boats and fish processing plants to consolidation as catch share trading takes off over the next few years. Others are calling the plan a coercive and illegal power play that needs to be stopped.

The choke hold

Under the new catch share program, most fishermen have so few shares of yelloweye that catching just one or two could put them out of commission for the year – or out of business for good.

Using its own fish ownership as leverage, The Nature Conservancy is asking 20 to 25 fishermen to pool their shares of groundfish and agree to a conservative set of rules that reduce the risks of overfishing.

This new “risk pool” attacks the biggest problem facing West Coast groundfish boats under catch shares: Catching too many overfished species.

There are around 90 species in the groundfish fishery, some of which are extremely valuable because there are so few of them. Fishermen are limited in what they can catch by theses so-called “choke” species – the unintended bycatch that could choke off their access to other fish and force them to tie up their boats.

Yelloweye rockfish have the ultimate choke hold on the fishery. There are a mere 600 pounds of yelloweye allocated to groundfish boats coastwide, and they swim among millions of pounds of other species fishermen would like to catch. Under the new catch share program, most fishermen have so few shares of yelloweye that catching just one or two could put them out of commission for the year – or out of business for good. And because there are so few of them, their price on the catch share stock market is expected to be astronomical.

Avoiding “choke” species like yelloweye is The Nature Conservancy’s strong suit. The group ditched trawl nets on most of its boats on California’s Central Coast years ago and switched over to more selective fishing gear that targets more abundant species. As a result, the catch share program has given the group ownership of a lot valuable fish their boats don’t catch. The Nature Conservancy is offering other fishermen access to that fish within a risk pool, in exchange for a commitment to eco-friendly fishing methods.

“We’re well positioned to be successful in a catch share program where avoiding overfished species is absolutely crucial,” Bell said. “What’s really interesting is we were doing these things on the Central Coast for the last three years, and everyone thought we were nuts. But we persevered, and now we’re at the table discussing how to implement all these approaches on a wide area of the West Coast.”

Saving grace or a power play?

“We’re well positioned to be successful in a catch share program where avoiding overfished species is absolutely crucial.”      Michael Bell, The Nature Conservancy.

Two groups of fishermen in northern California and southwest Washington have agreed to fish by The Nature Conservancy’s rules to hedge against financial losses under the catch share program.

Lynn Langford Walton, who works with a nine-boat co-op in Ilwaco, Wash., said risk pool model is the best hope for sustaining the fishery and keeping financially strapped fishermen afloat.

If they follow the rules, she explained, fishermen can draw from a larger pool if they catch more than their individual share of “choke” species. It will save them from having to buy extra fish on the spot market at prices that could put their business in jeopardy.

“This fleet has been so financially devastated – they’re so weak,” she said. “At the end of the day, if we can’t figure this out, we won’t have fish coming across the docks. We need this program desperately because catch shares carry a huge amount of risk.”

But fishermen outside the risk pool are wary of The Nature Conservancy’s new power.

“They hold a lot of fish, and you have to join their group to get it, so there’s some pressure to participate.”      Pete Leipzig, Fishermen’s Marketing Association

Pete Leipzig, director of the Fishermen’s Marketing Association, which represents most of the groundfish boats on the West Coast, said the risk pool plan is actually illegal under the new catch share rules.

He says The Nature Conservancy has exceeded the legal limit on fish ownership and is using the risk pool to avoid having to give its extra fish back to the fleet.

“They can say what they want, but that’s what I believe is going on,” he said. “They have been talking to fishermen about participating in their group, and I think there’s a bit of coercion here. They hold a lot of fish, and you have to join their group to get it, so there’s some pressure to participate.”

Leipzig is also worried that TNC is setting a dangerous precedent that would allow other large groundfish shareholders – namely Pacific Seafoods, the West Coast’s fish processing giant – to form their own risk pools instead of giving up their excess shares to stay under the ownership cap.

Aiming for the “triple bottom line”

Bell says his group’s ultimate goal is to develop a model for other fishermen to follow with their own risk pools - pools that will keep smaller boats fishing and ultimately save fishing communities from losing their boats and processing plants to consolidation.

The model would boost profits for fishermen while shrinking the fishery’s environmental impacts by encouraging fishermen to avoid certain zones where overfished species congregate. Aiming for social, environmental and economic benefits is what Bell calls the “triple bottom line.”

“On one hand our ownership represents the worst fear of the catch share opposition – that Wall Street and non-traditional fishing interests will buy up the fishery and fishermen will lose access to fish and their fishing culture,” he said. “I understand that fear. But it also creates an opportunity for someone to come in that has a different type of bottom line. Someone who puts assets on the table that make an innovative experiment possible. Without that, we’re stuck in the stale fishery model that got us into this position in the first place.”

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