Fishing Restrictions May Increase Danger

40 fisheries face cutbacks to save depleted species

Wednesday, June 5, 2002


PORTLAND -- With the fates of coastal communities in their hands, West Coast fisheries managers finished work yesterday on a grim list of proposed restrictions that would push many sport and commercial fisheries off the continental shelf to rebuild overfished groundfish stocks.

Fishermen and members of the Pacific Fishery Management Council, which sets ocean fishing seasons off Washington, Oregon and California, spent two days in an airport hotel meeting room building a list of 40 fisheries that must be dramatically cut back in 2003 to avoid catching three species of groundfish that have been declared severely overfished.

The recommendations, which now go to the full council, would force many commercial fishermen to go far out to sea before casting their nets, increasing the danger and the cost while decreasing the catch. Sport fishermen could find many traditional fishing spots off-limits.

"If these restrictions don't work and we have to start shutting down whole fisheries, then this will be really horrible for these communities," said Hans Radke, a fisheries economist who serves as chairman of the Pacific Fishery Management Council.

The proposed restrictions were triggered by new scientific assessments that found that three species of rockfish -- canary, bocaccio and yelloweye -- are worse off than feared since being declared overfished in recent years. Harvest limits for 2003 have not been set yet, but are expected to be so low that fishing for other species that swim with them has changed.

The specific economic impacts of the cutbacks won't be calculated for months, but could be grim, Radke said. Sport and commercial fisheries generated $900 million of income on the West Coast in 2000. Of that, commercial fisheries generated $77 million in Washington, $153 million in Oregon and $426 million in California. Sport fisheries for the three states added $246 million.

If the restrictions prove effective, coastal communities could see fishing income drop 10 percent to 20 percent, Radke said. If whole fisheries are shut down, the impacts will be much worse.

Pete Leipsig, who represents 100 groundfish boats through the Fishermen's Marketing Association, said fishermen are frustrated by the government's failure to offer solutions that don't force fishermen out of business. Harvests have been declining for 20 years. Congress has balked at proposals to reduce the fleet through buyouts. Scientific research behind the cutbacks is spotty.

"It's the death of 1,000 cuts," Leipzig said.

Under the Sustainable Fisheries Act, overfished species -- those that dip below 25 percent of the population if there were no fishing -- must be rebuilt to 40 percent of unfished populations. Rebuilding bocaccio is projected to take 90 years.

Some fisheries will not be affected, such as Dungeness crab, tuna, swordfish taken by harpoon, anchovies and sardines, because they swim in different waters than the overfished rockfish. But others that swim with rockfish, such as halibut, salmon and black cod, face restrictions of varying degrees.

As the grim work progressed, fishermen reacted with gallows humor at the prospect that many of the 250 boats that make up the West Coast groundfish fleet could be forced off the water for decades to come unless scientific assessments of overfished stocks change.

"Why not use rubber hooks?" quipped one fisherman as the list projected on the meeting room wall showed another fishery pushed off the continental shelf into deeper and more dangerous waters father from home.

While trying to stop groundfish declines for the past 20 years, the council has relied on reducing harvests. The new restrictions represent a new management approach based on water depth and fishing gear. Boats fishing for species such as thornyheads, black cod and Dover sole would be pushed off the continental shelf into deeper waters greater than 900 feet, known as "the slope." Shrimp trawlers would have to use devices known as excluders, which allow fish to escape.

Recreational fisheries would be crowded into shallow waters where rockfish hauled to the surface could be released unharmed. Halibut fishing would be limited to areas with no yelloweye.

Depending on how low yelloweye limits are set, recreational halibut fishing could be shut down, said Phil Anderson, special assistant to the director of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The proposals go to the full management council along with harvest limits being developed by the council's Groundfish Management Team. The council will define its options at its Foster City, Calif., meetings June 17-21. After public review, the council sets the final 2003 ocean fishing seasons Sept. 9-13 in Portland.