Council votes to try rockfish quotas

Tom Knudson
Sacramento Bee
September 12, 2003

SEATTLE -- Offering a potential lifeboat to California's struggling rockfish industry, the Pacific Fishery Management Council voted Thursday to test a new approach for the entire West Coast -- one designed to turn fishermen into conservationists by giving them an ownership stake in the fish of the sea. The council unanimously voted to appoint a committee to draw up plans for implementing a quota system for rockfish, a group of colorful deep-water fish typically sold as red snapper.

The quotas, like those established on the west coast of Canada in 1997, would grant fishing operations a legal right to harvest a portion of the total catch each year -- a sharp contrast from the current U.S. approach, which imposes strict limits on where trawlers can fish and how much rockfish they can catch.

A move toward quotas drew praise from William Hogarth, director of fisheries for the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service, the federal agency that overseas the Pacific council.

"We have to do everything we can to guide this to implementation," Hogarth told The Bee prior to the vote. "If I were king, I'd have it in place tomorrow. That's how strongly I feel about it."

The council's action followed three days of public meetings and private discussions at a Seattle airport hotel. It reflected common ground reached through a budding relationship between U.S. and Canadian trawlers, who came together following a story contrasting the countries' management systems published last April in The Bee as part of
a series called "State of Denial."

British Columbia trawler Brian Mose, featured in that series, came directly to the meeting from his ship to recount how Canada's system had revived a troubled fishery. Before the quotas, Mose said, British Columbia's rockfish operations -- like those along the U.S. West Coast today -- were marred by overfishing, excessive waste, poor prices and ineffective government management.

Today, because they have proprietary quotas that they can manage and trade, Canadian fishermen find themselves in the maritime equivalent of a marathon, rather than a sprint -- strategically dragging their nets

when prices are higher instead of rushing to bring in the most fish first.

Mose sells about three-quarters of his 4-million-pound yearly catch to the California market, so his business actually could suffer if California's rockfish stocks rebound. But he said he came to Seattle anyway because he cares about the fish.

"I have no vested interest in coming down here," he said. "I believe in this."

Mose's visit was arranged by Dorothy Lowman, a Portland-based fisheries consultant for the conservation group Environmental Defense, who organized a trip to British Columbia for U.S. trawlers last June after reading The Bee's series.

"If it hadn't been for the article, I don't think we would have gone up there, frankly," Lowman said. "It had a huge impact."

Once a mainstay of the West Coast trawl fleet, rockfish populations have plunged, in part because federal managers failed to fully fathom the fish's unusual biology and how sharply warm ocean temperatures could reduce its reproduction, said Hogarth, the federal fisheries director.

"These are very long-lived species that we haven't dealt with in the past," Hogarth said. "Some of them have 80-year-plus life spans, and they reproduce sporadically."

Today, seven rockfish species along the California, Oregon and Washington coasts have been declared overfished. Scientists say it will take years, even more than a century, for them to recover. As those

populations declined, the Pacific council whittled federal limits lower and lower.

As a result of both overfishing and restrictions, the West Coast rockfish catch declined from 93.1 million pounds in 1991 to 18.5 million pounds in 2001; California's share dropped from 30.4 million pounds to 5.3 million pounds.

Last year, the Pacific council took the unprecedented step of closing more than a thousand miles of West Coast marine waters to rockfish trawling -- sowing joblessness and despair in many communities.

"If you want to see a community devastated by federal fishery regulations, come to Crescent City," said Richard Young, a trawler from the Northern California coastal community. "You can look around the

harbor and see boats that are just sitting idle."

For Young, it has been like watching his retirement shrink precipitously, day by day. "The bottom line is (Canada has) a fishery with a future and today we don't," Young told the Pacific council Thursday.

Pete Leipzig, head of the Eureka-based Fishermen's Marketing Association, which represents the 273-boat West Coast trawl fleet, joined Young to speak in favor of the quota system.

"The current system is not working," Leipzig said shortly before the vote was taken.

To Hogarth, such pro-quota testimony from the West Coast represents a dramatic shift in attitude. "Three years ago, on a visit to the West Coast, nobody wanted to talk about it," he said. "Now, they are asking me to help. And I am committed to helping."

Fish processors, on the other hand, expressed reservations. Currently, processors set the price of rockfish, but a quota system could shift more power to play the market to the trawlers.

"We're concerned about protecting our investments," said Rod Moore, executive director of the West Coast Seafood Processors Association.

Moore said many processors favor a "parallel system" of quotas for their operations.

Hogarth, however, said he is sceptical. "The (Bush) administration's position is opposed to processor shares" of quota, he said. "So from our perspective, it is an easy decision."

Quotas have become an increasingly popular solution in fishery and conservation circles. They already exist in Alaska for halibut and sablefish -- and have brought improvement there.

But West Coast quotas remained on the Pacific council's back burner for several years because of a federal moratorium on them. That moratorium was lifted last year, clearing the way for Thursday's vote.