Crisis in Groundfish Industry

Declaration will allow fishermen federal aid

By ROBERT DIGITALE
Press Democrat Staff Writer
Jan. 21, 2000

After years of declining catch quotas and landings, the West Coast groundfish industry has been declared an economic disaster, allowing fishermen the chance to seek federal aid.

The Commerce Department this week pronounced groundfish a "fisheries failure.'' It was the first such declaration for the fishery and is similar to past federal actions aimed at helping salmon fishermen and those in other beleaguered fisheries.

The designation will allow fishermen to ask Congress to buy back fishing boats or provide some other type of economic assistance. Even so, trawlers and fish processors suggested Thursday that another expected round of catch restrictions this year will take its toll on their industry.

"This is going to make a lot of people go broke,'' said Tom Elliott, skipper of the 68-foot trawl vessel Daydream in Bodega Bay.

Elliott and deck hands Fred Loftus and Rich Rader planned today to fish for "brownies'' or widow rockfish north of Bodega Bay. Their current two-month quota for the fish is 30,000 pounds, an amount Elliott said his boat can land in five hours. Five years ago, the fishermen could sell as much as they could catch.

Federal officials say the reason for the decline in the many different groundfish species is undetermined but appears related to natural causes, possibly including warmer ocean temperatures and related conditions. But fishery managers also concluded that they have overestimated how fast the fish could reproduce.

"They're just not as productive as we had thought,'' said Jim Glock of the Pacific Fishery Management Council in Portland, Ore.

Groundfish have been a mainstay of the West Coast fishing industry, allowing a steady stream of cod, rockfish and other bottomfish species to bolster such seasonal offerings as crab and salmon.

"Groundfish is the number one item that the processors need to keep the doors open,'' said Jim Caito, an owner of Caito Fisheries in Fort Bragg and a member of the federal management council.

Much of the catch is caught by net, but some fishermen also use hook and line.

Groundfish landings dropped to 36,000 tons last year, compared to a 20-year average of about 74,000 tons. The catch this year is expected to drop further to 27,000 tons.

The value of landings for 1999 probably amounted to about $50 million, compared to $90 million in 1995, Glock said.

In response to the sharp declines, federal and state officials decided the fishermen needed federal aid. Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, was among those who authored a letter calling on the Commerce Department to declare the economic disaster.

"Now we'll try to get some money appropriated,'' Thompson said Thursday.

The federal government estimates there are about 2,000 vessels that land groundfish on the West Coast. But three-fourths of those are hook-and-line operations living under the tightest quotas. The trawlers who catch most of the fish number less than 260, said Tommy Ancona, a Fort Bragg trawler and the president of the Fishermen's Marketing Association.

The fishermen say the reduced landings have prompted a number of fishermen to quit the fishery, but there are still too many to live off the ever-tightening catch quotas. They said the government should buy back the special fishing permits to further reduce their numbers.

"The pie is only so big, and if we could get some of them out of it, there might be enough for the rest to make it,'' Ancona said.

No one is looking for a quick turnaround in the fishery. Unlike salmon, which spawn after three to five years, many of the groundfish are slow-growing and live 25 to 75 years.

Those involved differ on how well the federal government has conducted research and managed the fishery. But generally they agree humans still know relatively little about groundfish and predicting the health of the many different species has proved frustrating.

"The simple truth is that collectively we all misunderstood the data,'' said Svein Fougner, an administrator with the National Marine Fisheries Service in Long Beach.

2000 The Press Democrat