Once they turned to the sea for sustenance. Today, many fishermen on California's coast turn to wives and girlfriends instead.

 British Columbia | Washington | Oregon | California

"Steady job and benefits, that's the marrying kind," said Troy Vought, a commercial trawler in Eureka. "If you ask most fishermen, 'How are you still fishing?' they tell you, 'It's because my wife has a good job.'"

Six hundred miles up the coast, in a restaurant on Vancouver Island, Canadian trawler Brian Mose leans back and smiles.

Life is good. Unlike Vought, Mose faces no snarl of federal rules that threaten his career. His deckhands earn up to $150,000 Canadian ($104,000 U.S.) a year. And three-quarters of their catch is shipped south to the most voracious seafood market on the West Coast: California.

"I would never try to sell to 34 million people in Canada; it's logistically impossible," Mose said. "The beauty of it is Californians are all jammed into the I-5 corridor. California is just as sweet as it comes."

Ever since gold-seekers swarmed to California in the 19th century, the state has been known as a mother lode of economic opportunity.

But on its central and north coast, efforts to protect seven species of Pacific rockfish - commonly known as red snapper - with federal fishing limits and bans put into place beginning in the 1990s, are reversing that historic trend by exporting opportunity to Canada - and sowing joblessness and despair at home.

Like many commodities, Canada's rockfish don't leave a well-defined trail in the marketplace. Once sold to processing plants, they are shipped by truck and plane to seafood wholesalers who in turn deal them to restaurants and supermarkets from Vancouver to San Diego. No agency - U.S. or Canadian - logs the final destination.

But trawlers and processors in Canada say about 75 percent of British Columbia's commercial catch is snapped up by consumers in California.

And that has some British Columbia environmentalists worried.

A decade ago, hunger for North Atlantic cod - its fillets white and flaky like rockfish - helped propel one of the most dramatic episodes of overfishing ever off the coasts of Newfoundland and New England. Some fear the same kind of market forces could one day deplete British Columbia's rockfish.

"When California started scaling back, I said: 'Holy smokes! What kind of pressure is this going to put on our species?'" said Terry Glavin, marine conservation adviser and rockfish specialist for the Sierra Club of British Columbia.

So far, the answer has been: none at all.

Therein lies a contrarian tale suggesting California's passion for conserving resources at home while consuming them from elsewhere need not export environmental pain, as it has done in Ecuador's Amazon and Canada's boreal forest.

The key is having a system to prevent such damage.

In British Columbia, that system is a federal management plan that is turning commercial fishermen into conservationists by giving them an ownership stake in the fish of the sea.

With legal title to an average of 610,000 pounds of rockfish a year, trawlers no longer race to sea in a competitive dash for fish. They work at their own pace, dragging their nets when prices are good. Most fish less - and catch less - but earn more.

Like property owners, they now take a keen interest in the value of their asset, including its resale value. The more productive rockfish stocks are, the more valuable a trawler's ownership stake - or quota - in them becomes. Lately, some trawlers have retired from the fleet and sold their quota to other fishermen for about $1.90 a pound, becoming millionaires.


 Living with quotas Photo Gallery

While not flawless, Canada's 6-year-old quota system has made trawling less wasteful.

"Quotas came just in time. It means there will be fish for the future. We are busy like crazy, more busy than ever before." At an unloading facility on Vancouver Island, rockfish are sorted and tossed into bins. Later, they will be trucked to a processing plant to be gutted, filleted and shipped to seafood distributors. About three-quarters of British Columbia's rockfish catch is snapped up by California.
Sacramento Bee/Bryan Patrick

View Gallery: Living with quotas

When British Columbia trawlers happen to catch more than their quota, they are not forced to shovel the excess overboard dead, as U.S. fishermen must do. Instead, the Canadian system allows them to keep their catch - and profit from it, without hurting the environment.

Perhaps most importantly, Canada's system puts a federal "observer" on every boat, allowing its Department of Fisheries and Oceans to eliminate the guesswork that has long plagued fisheries management and to respond more quickly to changing ocean conditions. It is just such a failure to react to changing conditions that precipitated the rockfish crisis in California.

"The quota system has proven so successful you can't ignore it," said Bruce Turris, executive manager of the Canadian Groundfish Research and Conservation Society, which represents the trawl fleet.

"Clearly, there are public policy issues about the allocation of quasi-proprietary rights to a public resource. But there is no question quotas have their place in enhanced resource management."

U.S. fishery officials agree. "It's a system I would love to have," said Hans Radtke, chairman of the Portland-based Pacific Fishery Management Council, the federal entity that oversees commercial fishing on the West Coast.

Until October, though, the Pacific council, like regional councils around the country, was forbidden by Congress from developing quota systems, in part because of conflict about how to divvy up fish stocks.

With that ban now lifted, "We'll move ahead," Radtke said. "But it's going to be a long, drawn-out political process. And the industry has to get behind it. Otherwise, it won't work."

Many trawlers are enthusiastic. "I wish we had that system here," said Peter Leipzig, head of the Eureka-based Fishermen's Marketing Association, which represents the 273-boat West Coast trawl fleet.

Instead, the fleet has faced a maze of federal limits and closures so riddled with uncertainty it has forced fishermen and fish processors out of business and contributed to divorce, drug abuse and domestic violence, according to skippers and their wives.

"There is so much worry about money," said Mary Young, a Crescent City social worker married to a trawl captain. "I talk to the wives of crew members and half the time they're splitting up. You see a lot more problems in the family."

By their very nature, rockfish are not an easy species to know.

For starters, there aren't just a few kinds. There are dozens, an undersea galaxy of 70 to 80 species that school and swarm along the continental shelf from Baja California to Alaska.

Rockfish don't splash up rivers like salmon. They don't slash through the surface like tuna. They hunker down at crushing and sunless depths of 400 to 2,500 feet, where many details about their lives remain unfathomed by science.

They are ambassadors of the unusual.

With bulging eyes, bucket-like mouths and a forest of quills on their spines, rockfish seem to spring from a Dr. Seuss children's story:

There were purple rockfish, lemon rockfish
and other strange types;
Some had thin yellow lips, some wore
speckles and stripes!

Even their names are colorful. There are chilipeppers and chuckleheads, harlequins and honeycombs, widows and idiots, vermilions and chameleons, warthogs and watermelons.

But their comic front masks a complex nature. As scientists recently discovered, rockfish are like humans in some ways. They grow slowly, take years to mature and reproduce only occasionally. The rockfish on your plate may be older than you. Some live to be 70 or more. A few make it past 100.


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