Fishing Fleets Face Tighter Limits

Efforts to rebuild dwindling ground-fish populations may force many fishermen out of business

October 31, 2000

The West Coast fishing industry is headed for another sea change.

State and federal regulators this week are set to impose tighter limits on increasingly scarce fish, and a plan now before the secretary of commerce could cut in half a major commercial fishing fleet.

Regulators have tried for several years to come to grips with falling catches and slumping industry values for the big boats that bring in much of the familiar seafood known as red snapper, sole, flounder, rock and ling cod.

"There is a ground-fish crisis," said Dan Waldeck, staff officer for the Pacific Fishery Management Council in Portland, Ore. "Slow-producing species, ocean conditions, and the size of the industry have got us into the box we are in."

Few people in the industry will argue with Waldeck's assessment, but how to deal with the situation is where viewpoints part.

Mark Gentry of Occidental is skipper of the 92-foot Sea Clipper, one of several drag boats operating out of Bodega Bay. He said rules forcing him to frequently change from one type of net to another do little to protect fish. Instead, he said, they are forcing him to leave Bodega Bay, where port services are not suitable for quickly and cheaply hauling nets on and off his boat.

"I'm going to have to move this boat out of this port and up to Crescent City where they have the facilities to change these 10,000-pound nets every two months," he said.

Gentry echoed sentiments of fishing boat skippers and fish processors along the West Coast that the ground-fish industry is in trouble and that there are too many boats fishing for too few fish.

"There's no doubt we need a fleet reduction," he said.

In less than 20 years, catches of most ground fish have fallen dramatically, according to the Pacific Fishery Management Council. In California, the commercial fleet caught 50,412 metric tons of ground fish in 1983. Last year, the California catch dropped to just 12,083 metric tons.

In response, fishing limits and length of fishing seasons have been reduced. New rules on gear and nets also have been established to protect species whose populations marine biologists believe are dangerously low.

Secretary of Commerce William M. Daley earlier this year declared the industry in crisis. The value of the fish sold at the dock fell from $72 million in 1994 to $52 million in 1998, producing an $11 million revenue loss to fishermen.

Pete Leipzig, executive director of the Fishermen's Marketing Association in Eureka, said the financial impact is much bigger when support and processing industries are considered.

"Economists use multipliers to represent industry impact on communities," he said. "They say ground-fish industry multipliers should be 2.5 to 2.7 times. That's a several-hundred-million-dollar industry."

Additional reductions in ground-fish catches are on the agenda of this week's meeting of the Pacific Fishery Management Council in Vancouver, Washington.

Most of the proposed cutbacks involve species that have already been declared overfished, such as canary rockfish and cow cod, or because of population rebuilding plans required under federal laws to protect overfished species.

Council officials say the anticipated cuts in annual fish harvest are necessary but in the long run are not sufficient for dealing with the declining fishery.

A report and strategic plan on the ground-fish industry submitted to Daley earlier this month calls for a major overhaul. Although the report deals mostly with the commercial industry, sports fishing interests and Indian tribes who depend on the fishery also will be affected.

"The groundfish resource cannot support the number of vessels catching and landing groundfish," the report said. "There are over 2,000 licensed West Coast commercial fishers, and many thousands of sports fishers. To bring (the fleet) in line with resource productivity, the number of vessels in most fishery sectors will have to be reduced by at least 50 percent."

Ironically, the strategic plan said, the oversized fleet was created by the government in the 1970s and 1980s when fishermen were given federal loans to buy boats to compete with foreign fishing boats operating within U.S. waters. Now, among the options submitted to Daley for developing a ground-fish strategy is getting Congress to agree to pay many commercial skippers to leave the business.

Leipzig, the Eureka marketing association director, said in 1996 the industry itself proposed to finance a $28 million "buyout" program but could not get federal approval. The proposal was scrapped when the fishery went into decline.

"Now the regulations are in place and we have a collapsed industry," he said. "It is questionable if the industry alone can do it all by itself without federal assistance."

You can reach Staff Writer Bob Klose at 521-5312 or e-mail