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New fishing quota rules may prove too costly for local fishermen

By Jamie Hansen | 10 Feb 2011

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Tom Genochio has trawled for decades with the Helen Ruth, but he maybe not this year. (Photo: Jamie Hansen)

A regional program intended to better manage the West Coast’s largest fishery — groundfish, or bottom-dwellers like cod and sole — began this January. But, deterred by new costs and administrative hurdles, many small, local fishing operations won’t be fishing at all.

At Pillar Point Harbor near Half Moon Bay, many local fishermen anticipate they won’t be able to afford fishing groundfish at all under the new system.

The new “catch-shares” or “Individual Fishing Quota” program will limit how many groundfish are caught by giving fishermen a particular quota and allowing them to buy or sell amongst themselves. That’s in contrast to the old method, which provided an industry-wide catch limit that everyone raced to fill.

Concerned about catch-shares’ effect on small fishing boats, a coalition of organizations is suing the Department of Commerce to halt the program. It says the new, costly requirement that each boat hire an official observer to ensure adherence to the rules will be especially burdensome to smaller outfits. Motivated by the additional cost, about $350 a day, and logistical hurdles, those fishermen say they may opt out of the industry and sell off their quota. Many people in the industry worry that ports would suffer big job losses, and the ability to catch groundfish will be being consolidated in the hands of a few “super-trawlers.”

But not all fishermen are unhappy with catch-shares: to the contrary, one fishing organization played a key role in its creation.

“We needed a system of management that allowed fishermen flexibility,” said Peter Leipzig, executive director of the Fishermen’s Marketing Association. The association represents West Coast trawlers. These net-dragging boats — often much larger operations than those using fishing lines and traps — comprise the bulk of the groundfish fleet. Leipzig has been helping the association advocate for a catch-share program for seven years now.

But it really started before that, in the late nineties, when groundfish populations took a nosedive. Too many boats were chasing too few fish. As regulations emerged to prevent over-fishing, many trawlers were barely scraping by.

Leipzig, charged with stabilizing fish-market prices for association members, saw the need for action. So on behalf of the association, he began to lobby congress for a “buy-back” program aimed at reducing the size of the fleet by 50 percent. For years, he says, he walked the halls of congress, seeking interest in the program.

Finally, he found the support he needed. In 2003, the federal government loaned the West Coast groundfish industry $28 million to buy and retire groundfish trawling permits.

The fishing fleet shrank to about half its former size. Still, the fish failed to rebound, and it appeared there were still too many boats to profit much from the available fish.

“We realized there were too many people buying up the pie, and that there was going to be a food fight,” Leipzig said.

So the association began working with the Pacific Fishery Management Council, charged with creating fishery management systems, to change the way the fishermen were regulated. The association has been involved with the council since its inception, Leipzig said. Its members serve on most committees. In 2003, the council developed a committee to promote individual quotas for groundfish trawling.

The result? Catch-shares.

“We needed a way fishermen could adjust the fishing practice on a personal level, rather than a one-size-fits-all approach,” Leipzig said.

The catch-share program can attribute part of its successful passage to support from groups like the Environmental Defense Fund. The fund is an environmental non-profit which focuses on market-based solutions and has advocated for similar programs since the late nineties.

“We see it as a great management tool,” said Shems Jud, the fund’s deputy regional director for its Ocean Program. Jud said the fund and groups like the association share the common goal of making the fishery more sustainable.

After seven years’ of effort by those groups, the catch-shares system began on Jan. 11. Some fishing groups have objected. They contend that the program was implemented to satisfy the interests of big trawlers and that the pacific council didn’t adequately address their own concerns.

“The council system has been very successful in getting trawlers represented; we haven’t,” said Leesa Cobb, director for a non-trawling, community-based fishing organization in Oregon.

Her organization has joined the San Francisco-based Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Association and the Crab Boat Owner’s Association in their suit to halt the program.

“The people who traditionally fished hook-and-line and traps are being cut out under this,” said Larry Collins, president of the Crab Boat Owner’s Association, adding that he saw it as a “scheme to make a handful of trawlers millionaires.”

But Leipzig argues that everyone had a chance to voice concern at Pacific Council meetings.

Gerry Richter, a Santa Barbara-based fisherman who represents the “fixed-gear,” or non-trawling, interests on the Pacific Council’s subpanel for groundfish, was more circumspect.

“I know guys who feel it’s going to do them really well and others who say they’re done fishing for those species” included in the catch-share program.

Richter acknowledged the need to protect the fishery — “after all, it’s our livelihood” — but added, “It can be incredibly frustrating for old fishermen who have been doing it for 60 years when the” biologists supporting the program “won’t even come talk to them.”

Almost everyone seems unhappy about at least one part of the program — paid observers. Boats must hire observers who will ensure they’re sticking to quota. Costing an average of $350 a day, that’s expensive, especially for small boats whose daily profits often don’t exceed that amount.

The program includes provisions that will help boats pay a portion of the fee for the first few years, but after that fishermen are on their own. That’s unless the current plan can be amended — and Leipzig says the attempt to do so has already begun.

Tom Genochio, at Pillar Point Harbor, has trawled for groundfish in his 41-foot boat, the Helen Ruth, since 1977. But this year, he plans to lease his quota to a larger operation farther north  because, he reflected, “This is not a business for small fishermen anymore.”

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