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Fishing, port groups sue over new groundfish plan

Three West Coast groups aren't happy about the federal government's new groundfish management plan. So, they're suing to stop it.

Three West Coast groups aren't happy about the federal government's new groundfish management plan. So, they're suing to stop it.

A regional fishing organization and two locally-based port organizations in California and Oregon announced today they have filed suit against the Department of Commerce to stop the federal West Coast groundfish individual fishing quota program.

The program, also known as “rationalization,” divvies up shares of the groundfish fishery (stocks such as sole, rockfish and sablefish) among the individual permit holders. The quotas can then be leased or sold to anyone with a trawl fishing permit. It is set to launch in January, and fishermen in the fleet have already begun assessing their chances of survival and selling their permits based on how much quota they expect to receive.

I’ve written about this program a lot over the past couple years, and I’ve seen several fishermen change their minds about whether it’s going to be a good deal for their businesses. The groundfish fleet – about a third of which is based in Oregon – has been shrinking and struggling to stay afloat for awhile now because of diminished stocks and complicated regulations. Advocates of the program – including Environmental Defense Fund – argue rationalization is the best way to keep it alive and make it more sustainable.

But opponents of the program say it will consolidate the fishing fleet, privatize public fish resources, deny many fishing ports access to fish in adjacent waters and cause massive job losses.

Zeke Grader, director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, which is one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said because the fishing quota can be sold to non-fishermen who own fishing permits, his group fears the fishermen themselves will be relegated to sharecroppers as the quota is consolidated into the hands of a few wealthy corporations.

“This plan imposes a radical shift in the way our fisheries have been conducted. Since ownership of these quotas - which are being given to a select group of trawl operators - is not limited to those actually fishing, our next generation of fishing men and women will likely be seafaring sharecroppers forced to fish quotas held by processors, bankers and speculators,” said Grader.  “This is social engineering, not conservation.”

I will add some more perspectives on this story as soon as I can get them. I know, for example, there are other quota programs operating in the U.S. and around the world that can illustrate the kinds of problems this lawsuit is raising. In the meantime, here are the highlights of the news release the three plaintiffs sent out today:

The suit, filed last Friday in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, seeks to stop the implementation of a plan by the Pacific Fishery Management Council that is approved by Commerce. Plaintiffs are the Crab Boat Owners Association of San Francisco, the Port Orford Ocean Resource Team of Port Orford, Oregon, and the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations. Defendants are Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke, the National Marine Fisheries Service, and the Department of Commerce’s National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration.

Under a 2006 amendment to the nation’s governing fishery law – the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation & Management Act – when fishing access is limited quota is to be provided for community fishing associations, to assure ports with a historic dependence on fishing will continue to have access to the fish from adjacent waters.  Under Commerce’s “rationalization” plan, however, no provision has been made for community fishing associations, such as those forming in Port Orford and San Francisco.

The plaintiffs acknowledge the groundfish fishery has been in crisis and improvements in management are needed, but they say the government’s “rationalization” plan will make a bad situation much worse. According to them, the problem is too large of vessels taking too much fish, not “too many boats chasing too few fish.”

Under Commerce’s plan, 90 percent of the groundfish will be given to trawl vessel owners, despite the fact this fishing gear has proven the most problematic of the three ways of harvesting the fish.  Hook-and-line and traps – collectively known as “fixed gear,” are used to fish rockfish and blackcod, and are far more selective and do not harm seafloor habitat. Fixed gear-caught fish also command a higher value and employ more small family-owned fishing vessels.

Excepting about 160 trawl permit holders selected by the Pacific Council for quota allocation, all other fishing men and women will be prohibited from fishing all but about 10 percent of the West Coast groundfish resource. Control or ownership of the fishing quota being given the trawlers, however, may be freely sold thereafter and is not restricted to those fishing aboard a vessel.

The plaintiff fishing organizations note the Commerce groundfish plan will cost thousands of coastal jobs and not save one fish.  This is what happened in Alaska when over 1,000 fishing jobs were lost there under a federal “rationalization” plan for the crab fishery.

“We had no option left us,” said Larry Collins, a San Francisco fisherman and President of the Crab Boat Owners Association, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit.  “If we didn’t act to stop this travesty, ownership of the resource will consolidate into the hands of a few operators in a few ports along the coast, leaving many coastal fishing communities, including our own Fisherman’s Wharf, with no access to our own local fish.”

“We’ve got 2,000 miles of coastline, which historically supported thousands of small boat hook-and-line, trap and small trawl operators fishing this resource.  There was more than enough fish for everyone,” added Collins.  “But greed has taken over. First the big trawlers overfished the stocks and now they want what’s left all for themselves with the government’s blessing.”

Collins continued saying, “The people who traditionally fished hook-and-line and traps are being cut out under this government scheme to make a handful of trawlers millionaires and, in turn, privatize a public trust resource – the fish. By allowing the quota to be sold to anyone, even used as collateral for loans, makes it private property no matter what the government says. And, the massive fleet consolidation means there will no longer be enough vessels to bring their catch to the 30 or more fishing-dependent ports along this coast.

“Commerce’s groundfish rationalization is going to devastate communities such as Port Orford whose economy depends on fishing,” said Leesa Cobb of Oregon’s Port Orford Ocean Action Team, who has spent hundreds of hours in Pacific Council meetings over the past six years pleading the case of small fishing ports.  “Sustainable fisheries such as ours are being sacrificed for those who’ve not fished sustainably in the past.  The government turned a blind eye to this and has been dismissive of the effects this plan would have on communities such as mine.”

“There are or will be enough fish to sustainably support hundreds of small vessels and fishing families along the coast, supplying locally-caught catch for the 30 plus fishing ports from Southern California to the Canadian border,” said Collins. “But there’ll never be enough to satiate the greed of the large companies and corporations waiting in the wings to take control of this resource under the government’s irrational scheme.”

Environmental Defense Fund Fisheries National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

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