Common Cause Nets a Fishing Solution
New federal catch-share program aims to cut groundfish bycatch.
Thursday, November 11, 2010
The floating bodies of rock cod stretch into the sea like a red pier—some 90,000 pounds of bycatch, by trawler John Pennisi’s estimate.
The fisherman shakes his head as he looks at the photograph, part of a family fishing album beginning with a 1910 picture of his grandpa, whose wooden trawler still bobs on the harbor outside the family’s Royal Seafood warehouse on Monterey’s commercial wharf.
“Under our old management system, we had to just dump ‘em,” Pennisi says, referring to federal trip-limit rules that limited his catch to about 1,200 pounds of red rock cod every two months, forcing him to shovel the dead excess overboard. “We were like, ‘This is immoral.’”
A new National Marine Fisheries Service policy, which takes effect in January, replaces the trip-limit system with one based on individual transferable quotas, also known as catch shares. Under the new policy, fishermen are allotted trawling quotas based on their historical groundfish harvest. The quotas are good for an entire year instead of in two-month windows, and fishermen can sell their shares to one another.
“It’s gonna be much more cooperative now,” says Pennisi, who claims the biggest catch share on the West Coast.
David Crabbe, a former Monterey Bay squid fisherman and member of the Pacific Fisheries Management Council, says fishermen initiated the program.
“Industry came to the council with the desire to make a drastic change, because the status quo was not working for them,” he says. “This was not driven by government.”
He notes that program isn’t intended to reduce the total amount of groundfish brought to market. Catch shares, like trip limits, are based on fish stock assessments—but the new approach allows the feds to better enforce harvest limits and monitor bycatch.
“This program gives fishermen more flexibility and empowers them, and it’s 100 percent accountable,” Crabbe says. “Excessive bycatch is diminished incredibly off of this program.”
Although the catch-share approach has its critics, it may be one of the few management solutions that appeals to both environmentalists and commercial fishermen, because reducing bycatch makes both environmental and economic sense.
Supporters of catch shares include the Environmental Defense Fund and The Nature Conservancy, along with the Fishermen’s Marketing Association and Midwater Trawlers Collective.
Monterey Bay Aquarium Vice President Mike Sutton is cautiously optimistic about the new program, which despite its acceptance by a spectrum of conservation and fishing groups has also faced criticism from both sides.
“[Some fishermen] worry catch shares will be the end of mom-and-pop fisheries, but there are safeguards that prevent the aggregation of quotas,” he says. “And traditionally, enviros think catch shares are privatizing a public resource—but it just gives people the right to use a certain share.”
The new approach, however, isn’t likely to upgrade trawled rockfish off the red list on the Aquarium’s Seafood Watch card, a pocket-sized reference guide to sustainable fish. While catch-share management may be an improvement over trip limits, Sutton says, it still doesn’t change the facts that rockfish stocks are still recovering from past overfishing and trawling tears up the sea floor.
“If a fishery is depleted and it’s using destructive gear,” he says, “it may not matter that it’s managed better.”