Bottom dropping out of groundfish industry

October 17, 2000

Commercial fishermen on the West Coast who harvest groundfish from the Pacific Ocean are bracing for more waves as the federal government looks for ways to recover dwindling fish populations.

The latest plan calls for pushing half of the groundfish fleet out of the business in Oregon, Washington and California. Remaining fishermen will be faced with additional cutbacks on the number of fish they can catch.

The Pacific Fishery Management Council, which manages ocean fishing off the West Coast, made the recommendations as part of a sweeping, five-year plan to keep dozens of species from being wiped out. The council is also looking for a way to sustain the groundfish industry, albeit through another set of reductions.

Although frustrated, fishermen agree that getting half of the estimated 2,000 groundfishing boats out of the water is an important step for the fishery's survival.

"A capacity reduction is essential and everyone knows it, not only for protection of the resource itself but for the ability of any single captain to make a living," said Glen Spain, Northwest director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, the largest commercial fishermen's trade association on the West Coast. "At present, it simply is not working."

Over the past 10 years, groundfishermen have watched their incomes plummet by 50 percent because of increasing catch limits. In the last five years, landings dropped from $90 million to $50 million, according the PFMC.

Scientists with the National Marine Fisheries Service have registered increasing concerned that certain groundfish populations aren't reproducing fast enough to replace the fish caught each year. Overfishing, lax management and changing ocean conditions are largely to blame.

The federal government lists eight species of groundfish - including popular delicacies such as lingcod, Pacific Ocean perch and bocaccio - as "overfished."

In November, the council imposed dramatic cuts in the amount of groundfish that could be harvested. The reductions, which ranged from 14 percent to 85 percent, sent a wave of panic through the industry and prompted U.S. Secretary of Commerce William Daley to declare the fishery a federal disaster in January.

Since then, supporters have been scrambling to come up with a comprehensive recovery plan and a way to fund it. Congress agreed this summer to send $5 million in emergency aid to the industry, but more money will be needed to cushion the blow to coastal communities along the West Coast.

Some fishermen already have jumped ship. Others are in too deep and can't afford to get out without some kind of compensation.

"It's inhuman to force the fleet into self-cannibalism through bankruptcies and defaults, and extremely stressful on the families involved, many of whom stand to lose their homes as well as their boats," Spain said.

By trimming the fleet by 50 percent, federal officials think bottomfish populations will have a chance to start recovering. The problem is that no money has been set aside yet for a buy-back program. Supporters are expected to ask Congress to fund an aid package in coming years.

Meanwhile, the PFMC is also calling for more cutbacks in the amount of groundfish that can be harvested. Even so, federal estimates say it could take 10 to 30 years for groundfish stocks to recover.

On top of fleet reductions and harvest cutbacks, there's also a call from the government and the industry to beef up efforts to study exactly how big the problem is and where the industry is headed. Conservationists, federal officials and commercial fishermen have been frustrated with the lack of solid information about groundfish populations. Of 83 species managed by the PFMC, 61 are listed as "status unknown" by the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Fishermen and conservationists say it's impossible to make significant management decisions about groundfish until the status of the stocks is known.

"Management decisions are being driven by politics and legal definitions," said Peter Leipzig of the Eureka, California-based Fishermen's Marketing Group. "Science is being asked to deliver far more than it can produce."

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