March 29, 2002
By Carol Benfield The Santa Rosa Press Democrat
Fort Bragg fisherman Jim Bassler has been making a living from the sea for 17 years, but every year he finds himself working harder and faster for fewer fish.
The $3.7 million commercial fishing season for rockfish, once a celebration of nature's bounty, has become a frenetic race to survive, Bassler said.
Fishermen say they go out in treacherous winds and bad weather, competing against each other to catch as much as they can, as quickly as they can, in shorter fishing seasons and with smaller catch limits.
"It's dangerous work. You go out when it's rough because they may close the season tomorrow. And it could get even more desperate if it goes on this way," Bassler said.
But a proposal by the state Department of Fish and Game could change all this. Instead of having a quota for the season, Fish and Game is proposing a quota for individual fishermen.
The department is doing it because rockfish populations are declining precipitously and commercial fishermen are finding it difficult to make a living, said Chamois Andersen, a spokeswoman for Fish and Game.
No one wants to see rockfish, which include greenling, bocaccio and yellowtail, go the way of the $11.2 million salmon fishery, in which three species are on federal lists as threatened or endangered.
"We want to ensure that fishermen make money and that there are fish to fish for," Andersen said.
One of Fish and Game's recommendations would cut the size of the fleet by giving permits only to those with an established track record of catches -- perhaps 600 pounds of fish caught over three years.
That could cut the current nearshore fleet of about 750 fishing boats by nearly 50 percent, said Bill James, a commercial fisherman and a member of an advisory panel to Fish and Game on nearshore fishing.
Another, more controversial recommendation would give the fishermen who survive the weeding-out process an individual annual quota for the amount of fish they could catch. It would be a percentage share of the harvest that could be used, bought, leased or sold.
The fishing season now is open for set periods of time, but if fishermen surpass the fleet quota before that time, the fishery is closed. The pressure is on fishermen to work as quickly and efficiently as they can.
With individual quotas, instead of a single quota for the whole fleet, the fishing season could last all year and fishermen could spread out their fishing time.
"If you can catch fish any time, you can go out when the weather is good and the profit is right," James said.
An individual quota program -- called a shares program in California -- would give fishermen an incentive to preserve the fishery because the value of their share, should they want to sell it, would be directly tied to the population of fish, James said.
"You might decide not to fish during spawning season and be more careful to toss small fish back alive," he said.
More to the point, an individual quota program would prevent the kind of overfishing that occurred last fall, when commercial and sports fishermen caught thousands more rockfish than the fleet quota allowed before Fish and Game could tally the take and close the season.
The shares proposal is currently circulating in focus groups up and down the coast and will be announced publicly May 7 at what is expected to be a lively Fish and Game Commission meeting.
Some fishermen like James, who are part of the focus groups, see merit in the new proposals. But others are expected to object because of the change in their way of life and the new layers of regulation that would be imposed.
Environmentalists are also concerned. Individual quota programs have not always worked well, said Lee Crockett, executive director of the Marine Fish Conservation Network based in Washington.
"It's a concern of a lot of small fishermen that if you allow a full free-market focus and an unlimited season, the big boys will come in and buy them up. They'll go from individual business owners to corporate employees," Crockett said.
In the surf clam fishery in New Jersey, which established an individual fishing quota program in the 1980s, the two biggest shareholders currently are not local fishermen, but an accounting firm and a bank, Crockett said.
Just as worrisome is that individual shares programs don't conserve fish unless the total poundage allocated is reduced, Crockett said.
"The programs don't do anything to reduce fishing capacity -- they just redistribute it," Crockett said.
Moreover, because individual quotas are usually based on the number of fish historically caught by fishermen, those who tried to allow stocks to replenish by fishing responsibly are penalized, while those who fished rapaciously are rewarded, Crockett said.
Historically, only sport fishermen went out for rockfish. Commercial fishermen became interested in the early 1990s, when Asian restaurants created a demand for live rockfish and the price paid to fishermen jumped from as little as 50 cents a pound to as much as $5 a pound.
Sport fishermen still catch the majority of rockfish, however, at least for three rockfish species for which individual records are kept -- greenling, cabezon and sheephead -- according to Fish and Game figures.