The nation’s top fishing regulator got a firsthand look at the changing face of the Central Coast’s struggling commercial fishing industry Friday when she toured Morro Bay.
Jane Lubchenco, administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, met with some Morro Bay city officials and local fishermen to get feedback on how well a controversial new catch-share program is working. She also took a boat tour of the Morro Bay harbor.
Lubchenco’s agency includes both the National Weather Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service, which regulates fishing in U.S. federal waters.
In January, nearly half of the West Coast groundfish fishery, one of the most valuable on the West Coast, was enrolled in a catch-share program. Fishermen in the program receive a fixed share of the groundfish quota, which can be caught any time during the year.
Local fishermen get between 2 and 3 percent of the quota for the West Coast. Catches are measured in pounds landed.
This differs from the traditional method of regulating fishing in which all fishermen work during a given season until a specific amount of fish is caught. Catch-share proponents say the system is better because it allows fishermen to work when it is safe and allows them to plan for the future.
“The fishermen tell me they are working smarter, not harder,” Lubchenco said.
Lubchenco said her Morro Bay visit was an opportunity to visit with fishermen from a smaller harbor and get feedback on how the catch-share program can be improved. Her harbor tour included stops at two boats involved in the catch-share program — the 35-foot Dorado and the 63-foot trawler South Bay.
Roger Cullen, captain of the Dorado, said that one improvement would be loosening the requirement that every catch-share trip have an observer onboard, which costs $350 per day. He said a better solution for smaller boats such as his would be to use video cameras to monitor what is brought aboard.
Lubchenco agreed that the program still has problems to work out, and it is not suitable for every fishery. The program was developed over a five-year period with input from the industry and is intended to give fishermen a stake in the future.
Local fishermen involved in the catch-share program have formed the Central Coast Sustainable Groundfish Association. They plan to use the group as a way to pool risk and involve the community in the program.
“Individuals can’t do this alone,” said Chris Kubiak, the group’s executive officer. “This is a community-based effort.”
The catch-share program applies to groundfishes, which are a group of deep-water, bottom-dwelling fish, including flatfish and rockfish. Locally, the mainstay of the groundfishery is sablefish, which are caught by trawling or by bottom-placed long lines.
The program remains controversial. Most fishermen who are not involved in catch-sharing are opposed to it.“It’s a terrible policy,” said Jeremiah O’Brien, president of the Morro Bay Commercial Fishermen’s Association. “It’s the worst thing that’s happened to commercial fishermen.”
Their main concern is consolidation. Large, better-financed fishing businesses, it’s feared, could buy up the entire quota and shut down small ports such as Morro Bay. But Lubchenco said consolidation is “absolutely forbidden,” because the program has limits on the amount of quota individuals and businesses can own.
Some fishermen criticized the fact that Lubchenco only met with fishermen in the catch-share program. Other Morro Bay commercial fishermen asked to participate but were turned down, said Mark Tognazzini, vice president of the Commercial Fishermen’s Association.
Lubchenco said she has met with critics of the program at other meetings. She encouraged them to submit their views in writing to the agency.
Michelle Norvell, manager of the Fort Bragg Groundfish Association, participated in Friday’s tour. She said she sympathizes with opponents of catch shares because she was once one of them.
Fort Bragg is a small fishing town in Northern California that is very similar to Morro Bay. Norvell decided the only way to save the town’s fishing heritage was to work within the catch-share program and make the best of it.
Commercial fishing along the West Coast has seen dwindling catches in recent decades and increasing regulations triggered by overfishing. Towns such as Morro Bay and Fort Bragg have lost many businesses that supported the fishing industry.
Morro Bay City Manager Andrea Lueker said the catch-share program and other innovations are providing a “snippet of hope” that the industry can begin to recover.
Catch-share opponent O’Brien is less optimistic.
“If you come to Morro Bay 20 years from now, it won’t be a small fishing village anymore,” he said. “It will be a large commercial T-shirt outlet.”
Reach David Sneed at 781-7930.