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Trawlers Dealing With Biggest Change In 50 Years

Trawl fishing on the west coast is a very different business this year. That’s because trawlers need to follow new rules that set individual quotas for how many fish they can catch. The industry calls it the biggest change in 50 years.

Vince Patton / OPB

The goal is to reduce-over fishing, and to stop trawlers from throwing out fish they don’t want. The program is also designed to make the fishing business more predictable. But the so-called “catch share” system could also drive more trawlers out of business.

To see what has changed, Oregon Field Guide’s Vince Patton spent a day with one fisherman on the high seas.

The Cape Windy is a small boat as trawlers go — 58 feet long. Paul Kujala’s one of the small operators. He and the entire west coast trawl fleet have a whole new set of rules to follow this year. Kujala needs to obey them — and stay in business.

“Well I’m trying hard to stay in it, What gives me hope is we have, lower expenses than…than a lot of other trawlers. Because I take only one deckhand with me,” Kujala said.



OPB’s Ecotrope blogger Cassandra Profita has more on the groundfish catch share program, including:

New to the groundfish fleet: Fish ownership and … The chicken dance

NOAA: This way to safe, sustainable fisheries

How environmentalists are reshaping a West Coast fishery

“There’s relatively few fishermen left than there has been in the past. And so it is a pretty small world now,” Kujala said.

Kujala’s is one of just 120 trawlers left on the West Coast.

In the 1990’s there were 500. On this day, Kujala leaves port in Warrenton, crosses the Columbia Bar and finds a favorite fishing spot about 14 miles off the Oregon coast.

He trawls the muddy ocean floor for ground fish. Every time he pulls in his nets, he’s making a bet. A gamble that he’ll catch the fish he wants - and avoid the kinds that have been overfished and could get him in trouble.

Kujala pulls in a net full of flat, brown fish. It’s just what he expected to find here.

  “The majority of what this tow has in it is Dover Sole.  This is the Dover Sole here,” he said.  

He drops the net again in the same spot.

This time he brings up a stunning surprise.

“I can’t believe it,” he laughed. “They’re Canary Rockfish. What are the odds? I’ve never had a tow like this in my life. This is what normally you’re trying to avoid,” he said.

It’s hard to imagine a worse fish to catch. Canary rockfish are highly restricted. And he didn’t just land a few. He’s got a deck full of hundreds of the bright orange fish.

A year ago, these fish would have been illegal to bring back to dock. He’d just discard them. Throw them overboard.

Now, he can bring them in and sell them. But every pound is tallied. Kujala is worried he just exceeded his annual canary rockfish quota in one tow. Until he knows for sure, all fishing stops. He pulls in his nets and spends the next 3 hours on pins and needles. He’s got to return to port where he can compare his quota to what he’s caught this year.

“I’ve probably not caught more than five fish in one tow in my entire life,” he explained.

“And I’ve fished here a lot,” he said laughing. “But that’s the way it goes. That’s fishing,” he said.

The individual quota system is brand new this year. Under the old system all the trawl boats shared a quota. If one boat caught too much of a particularly threatened kind of fish, then every trawler on the west coast had to stop fishing.

The new system divvies up the quotas boat by boat. Now if someone catches too much of one fish, only that boat gets shut down.

Brad Pettinger heads the Oregon Trawl Commission. He says the trawl industry itself pushed for this radical overhaul.

“This is probably the biggest changes in the fisheries probably the last fifty years,” Pettinger said.

So what we’ve asked for is basically, let’s have something that does this better. Let’s have something that reduces the waste, gives a certainty to the market. People can plan. Let’s treat it like a business,” he said.

To make sure that each boat follows the rules, there’s a built-in enforcer. Every boat must now carry a paid observer who weighs and counts each fish.

The observer on Kujala’s boat counts more than 600 pounds of canary rockfish. After nine hours at sea, the Cape Windy returns to the dock in Warrenton. Kujala heads to a computer to check the quota website. Sure enough, he’s caught at least 48 pounds more canary rockfish than he’s allowed.

Kujala still has one option: now he can try to bargain for part of another trawler’s Canary rock fish quota.

“So we got to…we’ve got to be real nice to somebody else so we can get forty-eight pounds of Canary’s from them, to cover what we caught there that one tow. And, we won’t be able to go fishing until we do,” he explained.

The new “catch share” program aims to protect threatened species by preventing over fishing. It gives a much more accurate picture of how many fish have been caught. And far fewer unwanted fish are being thrown overboard.

The Trawl Commission’s Brad Pettinger says that the discard rate has dropped from 25 percent a year ago to less then 5 percent this fall.

“By and large, people are gonna fish cleaner. Because they know that whatever they do, they’re gonna have to account for it,” he said.

As for Kujala, he’s still not sure what he thinks of the new system.

“So far it’s the jury’s still out a little bit. There’s pluses and minuses. so the individual accountability was attractive to a lot of the fishermen, so that you couldn’t step on my toes, I couldn’t step on yours. Now, with the individual catch shares, individually we all have a certain amount of fish,” Kuajala said.

Kuajala spends the next day horse-trading. A fellow trawler agrees to a deal and gives him enough Canary Rockfish quota to cover his unwanted haul. The Cape Windy is back to fishing again.