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Trawl quotas aim to keep even keel

By Tom Knudson - Bee Staff Writer

Published Monday, September 22, 2003

This story follows The Bee's special report, "State of Denial," published on April 27.

The morning after successfully lobbying for a historic vote to better manage West Coast rockfish, environmental consultant Dorothy Lowman was not celebrating; she was slumped in a hotel lobby chair.

For months, Lowman -- adviser to the conservation group Environmental Defense -- had worked to persuade the Pacific Fishery Management Council to consider a new Canadian-style quota system that could save both the West Coast trawl fleet and its increasingly scarce rockfish, commonly known as red snapper.

Now the daunting reality of drawing up a quota system and implementing it was settling in.

"We have our work cut out for us," a tired Lowman said in the Seattle lobby the morning after the Sept. 11 council vote. "It's going to be a challenge."

Individual fishing quotas represent a quantum shift in marine management -- one that seeks to conserve fish stocks less through traditional limits and seasonal closures and more through giving a slice of the yearly catch to individual fishermen, then letting them decide when to catch it, trade it or sell it.

In Canada, as in Alaska, quota systems have halted the frantic fishing derbies that occur when government restricts when, where and how much fleets can fish. Even there, however, quotas remain controversial, complex and, as the council will soon encounter, hard to put into place.

In British Columbia, fishermen, processors and federal officials found that a six-year-old quota system has led to healthier stocks of groundfish -- including rockfish -- better prices and less waste. But one Vancouver Island fisherman, Brian Mose, said designing a system "was a war."

The biggest challenge is deciding who gets how much quota -- a process that in Canada left some trawlers feeling shortchanged. Hurdles also include making the system work financially for fish processors, finding ways to allow young fishermen to get started and developing policies to prevent the economic consolidation of quota in the hands of a few.

"There will be rocky spots," said William Hogarth, director of fisheries at the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service, which oversees the Pacific council.

Hogarth praised the council's vote to create a committee to draw up plans for a quota system for all groundfish. That committee is expected to meet for the first time in October.

"If they get to an impasse, I am committed to finding ways to get past that impasse," Hogarth said. "We can't continue with this economic roller coaster, with fighting each other."

At the Seattle meeting, most trawlers were inclined to agree.

"We are sharing a dream (of quotas) because we are living a nightmare," said fisherman Brad Pettinger of Brookings, Ore.

The search for solutions took a big step in June when Lowman and two Environmental Defense staff members, inspired by The Bee series "State of Denial," traveled to Canada to learn more about that nation's quota system. They invited three West Coast trawlers and a Pacific fisheries council economist.

The U.S. trawlers were shocked and elated at what they found: a Canadian fleet that had encountered their very same problems -- overfishing, economic despair and throwing back fish because of regulatory restrictions -- and conquered them with quotas.

"We came away with a contagious sense of enthusiasm," said Marion Larkin, a Washington trawler who traveled with the group.

Canada's system emerged from a fleet so constrained by limits and closures that it rushed to sea in a frenzied dash known as "Olympic fishing." Quarterly catch limits were exceeded in just a few days.

Today, with the right to harvest a yearly portion of the catch, Canadian trawlers work at a more leisurely pace, choosing to fish when prices are higher. With a proprietary stake in quota, they have an interest in keeping fish stocks healthy, too.

Now, Canadian fishermen actually catch less, but earn more. In 1996, B.C. trawlers caught 29 million metric tons of groundfish, worth $21 million Canadian dollars. In 2000, they landed 26 million metric tons but earned $34 million.

Over the same period, U.S. West Coast ground fishery earnings tumbled. The catch of rockfish, for instance, plummeted from $35 million in 1996 to $17 million in 2000 -- and $13 million last year. In California alone, the value of the rockfish catch plunged from $15 million in 1996 to $6 million last year.

"In some ways, it takes a crisis for fishermen to decide to change," said Lowman, a former economist with the Pacific council. "In Canada, we found common ground."

Lowman and the others weren't content just to bring tales of Canadian success to the Seattle meeting. They brought the Canadians themselves, including Vancouver Island trawler Mose.

When the Canadian system began in 1997, "I was adamantly against it in a very significant way," Mose said. Today, he is among its most fervent disciples. He catches fewer fish -- about 4 million pounds a year compared to 6 to 8 million pounds before quotas -- but times his fishing trips to coincide with spikes in demand in California, where most B.C. rockfish is sold.

Mose drew laughter from the U.S trawlers when he said managing quotas has turned the once financially unsophisticated Canadian trawlers into "Excel spread-sheet wizards."

Though he was once suspicious of government fish managers, Mose spoke glowingly of Canada's at-sea monitoring program, which places a government observer on every boat to record what's brought up in the nets.

The scientific information that injects into the quota system gives it credibility, Mose said. Without it the system would be open to criticism.

The Seattle meeting also provided the first glimpses of the likely upcoming struggle over quotas in the United States.

Tim Horgan, chief operating officer for Pacific Seafoods -- a major West Coast processor -- expressed concerns about how such a system might affect processors. Some processors are concerned about the ways in which quotas could cut into their profits by shifting more control of the market to the trawlers.

"We haven't come out with our position yet," Horgan said. "We believe processors need to be recognized. If there is a proposal that does not include processors, we would be opposed."

A 2002 U.S. General Accounting Office report found that a quota system for halibut and sablefish in Alaska yielded mixed results for processors.

"Some processors were adversely affected ... while others benefited," the GAO found. "It is difficult, however, to quantify the actual benefits."

Murray Chatwin, a buyer for Ocean Fisheries Ltd. -- a Canadian processor -- said initial decisions over the allocation of quota to trawlers, processor involvement and other economic details were agonizing in his country.

"We went through quite a gut-wrenching experience putting the system together," Chatwin said. "I feel like I aged five years in one.

"My advice is separate out the socioeconomic issues and deal with them on their own," he said. "Don't confuse them with fisheries management, which is not that complicated."

Although fishermen tend to welcome the additional control quotas could give them, they worry about how that quota would be doled out.

Canadian officials used a formula based on the size of a trawl owner's boat and catch, hiring a retired judge to make the final call. Some trawlers fared well; others didn't.

Policies to prevent economic consolidation include caps on how much quota of each type of groundfish a trawler can accumulate.

Despite lingering concerns, a sense of urgency is building among many U.S. fishermen.

"They've got to do something," said Troy Vought, a trawl owner from Eureka who has been forced by the fishing downturn to start a new career on land. "The industry is collapsing. The markets are collapsing. We're not going to survive."

Ralph Brown -- the Pacific council member who introduced the motion to create the quota committee -- concurred.

"We've got an opportunity to try to fix this fishery," he said, "and it would be literally criminal for us to miss it."

About the Writer

The Bee's Tom Knudson can be reached at (530) 582-5336 or

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