Feds See Signs of Pacific Fishery Recovery

Byline: Associated Press/Jason Dearen

HALF MOON BAY (AP) — After one of the West Coast’s most valuable commercial fisheries was declared an economic disaster in 2000, California and other Pacific states saw more boats being sold and more fishermen looking for work.

But federal statistics show the first signs of a comeback among these so-called groundfish fishermen — those who ply deep waters for dozens of different species that fall under the “groundfish” label, such as sablefish, rockfish and thornyheads.

Conservation efforts and a 2-year-old contentious quota system called “catch shares” appear to be helping, and fishermen who were losing money in the once-lucrative fishery are in the black again, according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration data.

Catch shares set an overall cap on the number of fish that can be caught in an area without devastating the fishery. That number is then divided into individual quotas for each fisherman or company. The rules are enforced by an observer on each boat who keeps close tabs on what is being caught.

The system is new to the West Coast, but it is in use in more than 200 fisheries in 30 countries.

Before catch shares, commercial groundfishing was more of a free-for-all: Officials set dates for when fish could be caught, then let the fleet catch as much as possible, as fast as possible. Monitoring was far less obtrusive, but the result often was more dead fish caught unintentionally being thrown overboard so fishermen didn’t get fined at the dock.

Under the new program, fishermen can catch their quota anytime during the year, giving them more control over costs and labor and less incentive to cheat.

Another big change under catch shares is that quotas also are set for the amount of fish caught unintentionally — a major problem under the old system.

“Now, every single pound of fish — no matter what it is — is accounted for,” Geoff Bettencourt, a black-cod fisherman, said. “There’s no hiding anything.”

Under catch shares, government figures show unintentional catches of some species have been reduced by 80 percent or more in both 2011 and 2012.

Still, there are worries in some corners that the program in the long run will benefit big operations over small, family run fishing businesses.

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