Catch-share system is dawn of a new era for fishing

Commercial fishing on the West Coast is embarking on a new and highly controversial era this year. As of Jan. 1, trawling for groundfish will be managed under a catch-share system.

Under catch shares — also called individual fishing quotas — individual fishermen or businesses are allocated a percentage of the fish that can be caught and are free to harvest those fish when they want. Under the current limited-entry permit system, fishermen operate during seasons, subject to various gear and trip limits.

The federal Pacific Fisheries Management Council developed the new rules over the past six years following a disastrous collapse of groundfish stocks. Groundfish are a group of more than 90 different bottom-dwelling species that include flatfish, rockfish and black cod.

“The trawl fishery was having a lot of problems,” said Chris Kubiak, director of the Central Coast Sustainable Groundfish Association. “This program is intended to address those problems.”

Proponents of catch shares include some fishing groups as well as environmental groups such as the Environmental Defense Fund. They say the old rules created a derby-style race for fish during a short, frenzied season.

They say this sets up “Deadliest Catch” scenarios, referring to the reality television show about crab fishermen in Alaska. Catch shares allow fishermen to harvest their portion of the catch when market conditions are favorable, they say.

The new rules require greater monitoring and oversight. They are also intended to reduce the amount of waste that occurs when non-targeted species, called by-catch, are caught and thrown overboard dead.

Local fishermen are skeptical of catch shares, to say the least. They are afraid that the new rules will be so complex and expensive to comply with that they will favor large corporate fishing vessels at the expense of small, family fishermen who operate out of Morro Bay and Port San Luis.

“The commercial fishing industry here is dead-set against it,” said Jeremiah O’Brien of the Morro Bay Commercial Fishermen’s Organization. “I can’t think of a single fisherman who supports it; it’s a stupid, cockamamie idea.”

The most valuable local fish affected by the new rules is black cod — also known as sablefish. Trawlers drag nets through the water to catch these sleek fish, which are mostly exported to Japan where they are used for sashimi and other delicacies.

About 40 percent of the black cod that can be caught south of Big Sur is allocated to Central Coast fishermen. Most of this share is owned by The Nature Conservancy, which bought out the entire Morro Bay trawl fishing fleet and permits when groundfish stocks collapsed.

In 2010, The Nature Conservancy leased out six of its trawl permits to local fishermen and operated its own boat, the South Bay, said Michael Bell, project director for the group.

Over the past three years, The Nature Conservancy has worked with fishermen and others in the Morro Bay community to form a collaborative fishing program that experimented with new types of trawling gear as well as different ways of marketing locally caught fish.

“It’s been successful,” Bell said. “They’ve caught a lot of fish and made money while avoiding catching overfished species. They have also increased the price of the fish by landing a high-quality product.”

Now, the goal is to incorporate those changes into the catch-share program in a way that protects local fishermen. Eventually, the conservancy would like to sell its trawl permits to a community fishing association.

“Ultimately, it’s not The Nature Conservancy’s role to manage this fishery in perpetuity,” Bell said.

Meanwhile, everyone in the fishing community is waiting to see how the new quotas will play out. Most are worried that many of the program’s details have yet to be worked out.

“I think people don’t understand what we are looking at with this,” Kubiak said.

Proponents of catch shares say the program has safeguards built in that should protect smaller fishing ports like Morro Bay. These include limiting individual fishermen or businesses to no more than 2.7 percent of the total fishery and other caps.

Local fishermen remain unconvinced, however.

“All of these safeguards can be removed by the stroke of a pen,” O’Brien said.