Local fishermen criticize federal 'catch shares' system

Jeremiah O'Brien and his wife, Trudy, on their boat in Morro Bay. “The catch share system is probably the worst thing that ever happened to the fishing industry,” said Jeremiah O’Brien, who is director of the Morro Bay Commercial Fisherman’s Organization.
Jeremiah O'Brien and his wife, Trudy, on their boat in Morro Bay. “The catch share system is probably the worst thing that ever happened to the fishing industry,” said Jeremiah O’Brien, who is director of the Morro Bay Commercial Fisherman’s Organization.

Commercial fishermen, including some in Morro Bay, say a federal quota program called the “catch shares” system that was enacted to protect both fish and the fishing industry has damaged their ability to make a living.

“The catch share system is probably the worst thing that ever happened to the fishing industry,” said Jeremiah O’Brien, director of the Morro Bay Commercial Fishermen’s Organization. “We’re working within the system to survive as long as we can.”

The catch shares system enacted two years ago sets a yearly fish quota, then splits shares among individual fishers and companies. It’s meant to prevent overfishing while allowing fishers to earn a living.

Qualified monitors are required to go out on each fishing trip.

In Monterey Harbor, the skipper of a fishing boat that has trawled that area for decades says he’s been docked since spring, unable to earn a living. Jiri Nozicka says the quota system has problems that he can’t navigate.

“How do I plan anything?” he asked, recently standing on the deck of the San Giovanni. “I can’t. It’s impossible.”

O’Brien and Nozicka aren’t alone in criticizing the catch shares system and calling for changes. Commercial fishers, industry experts and government officials are among those who say that while fish populations are recovering, too few people in California are benefiting from that rebound in part because there aren’t enough qualified monitors to oversee the program.

After Pacific Coast groundfish populations dropped dramatically in 2000, a federal economic disaster was declared, leading to the strict new quota system. The goal was to boost populations of black cod and dover sole and to revive the flagging industry.

Four fishermen in Morro Bay are participating in the trawl fishery as part of the catch shares program, said Rick Algert, a former Morro Bay harbormaster who works part time for the city on fishing-related issues.

Algert said no fishermen in Port San Luis are taking part in the catch shares system that applies to trawl fishermen. Instead, those out of Port San Luis opted for other types of fishing, such as catches with pots for crab or lobster that don’t have a catch shares system.

“California has a third or a quarter of the trawl fishing fleet it used to,” Algert said. “It’s weakening and still at risk.”

Fishermen who are part of the program say there aren’t enough monitors. And operators of small, family-run boats say the cost of those monitors, which is the same for them as for corporate boats, has created inequality.

Alan Alward, who also sits on the board of the Morro Bay Commercial Fishermen’s Organization, says an observer can cost a boat $300 to $500 per day.

“The fact that you have to pay for it is absurd,” Alward said. “It’s like a commercial truck driver paying to bring someone along with him to make sure he was following safe driving practices.”

O’Brien believes the system encourages consolidation of shares into the hands of the biggest operators — many from outside San Luis Obispo County — who have more capital and can better afford them. The shares can be bought, sold, leased or traded. That effectively cuts out the small-market fishermen, he said.

“Corporations own all of the resources,” O’Brien said. “They’re pushing out all of the smaller boats.”

Michael Lucas, president of North Coast Fisheries Inc. in Santa Rosa, said in a letter to federal regulators, “Financially, I can only say that multiple trips have been canceled due to a lack of availability of these monitors, millions of pounds of fish have not been caught, processed and sold to markets, and this is a loss of millions of dollars.”

Early reports show the program has helped the Pacific groundfish fleet as a whole begin turning a profit again while protecting struggling species.

But critics say some things need to improve.

Two companies provide the bulk of the groundfish fleet’s observers, Alaskan Observers Inc. and Saltwater Inc., and neither company returned calls seeking comment for this story.

California’s fleet is much smaller than those in Oregon or Washington state. And critics say the Alaska-based companies choose not to provide more monitors in California despite a clear need because doing so would reduce profits. As a result, they say, fishers in some ports have reported days when two boats wanted to fish, but only one observer was available.

New National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates show the number of Pacific groundfish vessels has been shrinking slowly — from 140 boats in 2010 to 103 in 2013.

Frank Lockhart, who oversees Pacific groundfish catch shares for the National Marine Fisheries Service, acknowledged shortages in observer availability in some areas, and said there is an effort to expand the number near small ports.

“We have a rule coming out that will provide a process to get more observer-providers into the system,” Lockhart said. “The hope is that there will be some observer providers in some of these small places.”

From the start, the government acknowledged catch shares would thin the fleet but hoped there would be no “lost ports” or areas such as Morro Bay and Monterey that have just a few trawlers left.

Fishing industry experts working with NOAA on the program say the observer issue threatens the viability of the catch shares program.

“There’s no doubt that this is a threat to the overall durability of the program,” said Shems Jud, a catch shares expert with the Environmental Defense Fund. “From a conservation perspective, we love this program, so we’re working really hard with fishermen and the agency to look at ways to retain (it).”

Disputes over availability and cost of monitors are stoking interest in electronic monitoring, which would outfit boats with video systems. The fisheries service plans to issue a few experimental permits for electronic monitors in 2015.

Fishers say the video systems may provide the only hope for California’s dwindling fleet.

“I’m open to electronic monitoring,” said Keith Marshall, owner of the Capt. John out of Moss Landing. Marshall said he fishes 100 days a year and observers are a big expense.

“That might save guys like me and my friends. Otherwise, I don’t see independents like us surviving.”