California Fisheries Fund Loans Help Fishermen Strive for Sustainability

Commercial fishermen and environmentalists don’t often find
themselves on the same boat, collaboratively eyeing the horizon. All the same,
fishermen realize the need to protect the resource that feeds their livelihood.
Steve Fitz certainly does.
In 2012, Fitz – who fishes out of Half Moon Bay, California
– used a loan from the California Fisheries Fund (CFF) to glean the extra
financial assistance he needed to buy the F/V Mr. Morgan from
his uncle (also Steve Fitz) and start Mr. Morgan Fisheries, specializing in
sustainably harvested groundfish and Dungeness crabs. Fitz said the funding
“allowed me to purchase my boat, start my business, preserve my strong family
fishing heritage, upgrade my fishing equipment, and bring a higher quality and
sustainable product to the dock.”
The loan not only helped Fitz expand the family business,
but gave him a chance to continue a family tradition of having the nation’s
only commercial fishing operation to use Scottish seine gear. Phoebe Higgins, the
CCF director, calls it “an eco-friendly fishing technique that gently herds
fish into the path of lightweight nets without dragging heavy and destructive
gear on the ocean floor.”
Developed in Scotland in the 1920s, these seine nets are
considered by many observers as the most environmentally friendly flatfish
harvesting method used by the West Coast trawl industry compared to traditional
bottom trawling. Environmentalists say the traditional method leads to higher
by-catch numbers and adverse impacts to seafloor habitats.
Fitz describes the Scottish seine as “more environmentally
The net has no steel trawl doors or cables, and the
lightweight net is only used on smooth, sandy bottoms, not in rocky undersea
terrain. Its lighter construction and slower, kinder, gentler harvesting and
lower impact on ocean bottom habitat led to an exemption from 2005 federal
trawl closure areas off the California coast.
Fitz grew up fishing with his father in Cape Cod,
Massachusetts, and first learned about the Scottish seine method in 1975. He
later moved west, earned a business degree at the University of Denver, and in
1993 migrated to Half Moon Bay to fish with his namesake uncle. In 2000, he
began serving as co-captain of the F/V Mr. Morgan, a 66-foot steel
boat built in Louisiana in 1979 that began life as a Gulf Coast shrimper.
Mr. Morgan Fisheries is known for its sand dabs, petrale
sole and chilipepper rockfish managed under a federal trawl catch share program
launched in 2011 and touted by EDF.
“Like all other participants in this program, the Mr. Morgan
receives an individual fishing quota for several groundfish species that may be
harvested throughout the year, with requirements for full accountability of
every pound of fish harvested and a human observer on every fishing trip,” EDF
officials stated, noting that the new fishing practices “guarantee no
Fitz, they noted, can use the “100 percent federal at-sea
monitoring no overfishing guaranteed” label to market the fish.
It’s nothing new to the Fitz family, who have helped lead
the way in sustainable fishing for many years, including participation since
2007 in a program to identify overfished species “hot spots” and help fishermen
avoid catching at-risk stocks. Fitz is among the “future friendly team” of
fishermen involved with the Half Moon Bay Fishermen’s Association, which states
that it’s “dedicated to supplying our community with the freshest, locally and
sustainably caught seafood.” He’s often found selling fresh fish off the boat
at the dock in Half Moon Bay’s Pillar Point Harbor.
Higgins said CFF’s loan to Fitz “is helping to preserve the
presence of a family fishing operation that has become an important player in
harvesting groundfish with selective gear in the historically and culturally
important Half Moon Bay area.
Fitz joined Higgins during the January awards ceremony at
the California Environmental Protection Agency headquarters in Sacramento,
where EDF received the Governor’s Environmental and Economic Leadership Award
(GEELA) for the CFF loan project. GEELA recognizes efforts by individuals,
organizations and businesses that “successfully achieved measurable
environmental and economic outcomes in preserving the state’s natural resources
through innovative partnerships.”
More and more, “Americans want locally-caught,
environmentally-sustainable seafood,” noted Higgins. “The challenge comes when
fishermen try to make the transition from unsustainable to more environmentally
friendly fishing methods. They need financing, and often banks do not invest in
commercial fishing.” Fishermen need that financing to switch to fishing vessels
and gear that minimize habitat and fish damage, target the most abundant
species of fish, avoid threatened species, and comply with ever-growing federal
and state regulations. The CFF provides those funds, but there is a “catch.”
Funds for Fisheries
CFF was launched in 2008 by the San Francisco-based
Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), a national non-profit focused on what its
directors call “transformational solutions to the most serious environmental
problems.” EDF forges scientific, economic and other “innovative” partnerships
to reach those solutions.
The CFF offers low-interest loans to fishermen and fishing
businesses to improve operations that support eco-friendly seafood. Higgins
said the fund aims to remove economic impediments for fishermen who want to
fish more sustainably and “lends throughout the entire supply chain, from sea
to store.” Those loans are available to fishermen who are part of the
groundfish catch share management program, because Higgins said it “provides confidence”
that the fisheries are sustainably managed. The fishermen’s catch share quotas
can be collateral for a CFF loan.
According to the CFF website (, the revolving loan fund invests in
fishermen, fishing businesses, ports and port communities. The loans – either
term (1 to 10 years) or line of credit with interest rates of 4 to 8 percent,
depending on market interest rates and specific borrower circumstances – are
available to fishermen, processors, distributors, ports, communities and
nonprofit organizations. The funds can go toward gear purchase or modification,
vessel purchases or improvements, fishing permit or quota purchases, capital
equipment upgrades for dockside infrastructure, processing capacity and
transportation, or working capital for business growth.
Higgins and others say access to capital can make a
difference in whether fishermen oppose or support new regulations that require
more sustainable practices. EDF, which raises the funds itself to underwrite the
CFF, is attempting to expand the program by partnering with major banks. Bank
officials say EDF’s contribution takes away some of the risk of the lending
process for the banks, helping them to offer the loans at lower interest rates.
Keeping up with regulations and sustainable practices is a
key to survival for commercial fishermen.
Saving the Sea’s Bounty
Despite the ongoing diversity and abundant production of the
nation’s fisheries, most of the seafood eaten in the United States is imported.
Commercial fishermen note that most of the protections built
into US fisheries management are not enforced elsewhere, and many of the most
marketable species are caught or farmed without considering sustainability.
Choosing US wild-caught seafood supports fishermen, like
Fitz, and their families, who want to preserve the resource to maintain the
fishing heritage.
For many years, agency and fisheries officials say
California fisheries struggled with dwindling fish stocks and income, putting
the fishermen in a catch-22 situation by depriving them of the money needed to
upgrade equipment just to keep up with changing requirements.
A 2010 study by the National Ocean Economics (NOE) program
valued California’s ocean-related economy at $43 billion, providing more than
474,000 jobs. Commercial fishing landings statewide reached a peak of more than
900 million pounds in 1981, but had dropped to 297 million pounds in 2005 for
various reasons, among them “overfishing and misguided regulation.”
In 2011, the sustainable fishing management program known as
catch shares went into effect for more than 60 species of West Coast groundfish
– among them, sand dabs, sole, flounder and cod – designed to give fishermen a
secure share of the overall catch. EDF officials say the new system “righted
the fishing management ship, giving fishermen the right to catch a certain
amount of fish each year and the responsibility to not exceed it.”
Higgins said catch shares give fishermen “a direct
investment” in the fish stock, because as fish populations rebound, the value
of their shares grows.
Why Quotas?
Not long ago, the West Coast groundfish industry was sinking
under the weight of overcapitalization.
Fishermen and others say the federal government sowed the
seeds in the 1970s by guaranteeing low down payment, low-interest loans to
fishermen to build up the fishing fleet so they could “Americanize” the
fisheries within the established 200-mile territorial sea zone. By 1991,
overcapitalization reigned, with the fleet boasting “too many vessels to harvest
available resources.”
Poor ocean conditions complicated matters.
Declared a disaster in 2000, the fishery foundered, along
with communities that depend on it. In 2001, fishermen proposed a government
buy-back program, which launched in 2003 and reduced the fleet by half.
Even so, managers say the fishery remained overcapitalized,
and the search began for other ways to restore a fishery whose landings dropped
by 70 percent in two decades, from an average of 74,000 tons in the 1980s to
22,214 tons in 2007. Revenues fell from $47.3 million in 1997 to $22.2 million
in 2007. Major declines in nine of 82 groundfish species led to the 2000
federal fishery disaster declaration, and the Pacific Fisheries Management
Council (PFMC) listed seven rockfish species as “overfished.”

What They Are
The PFMC, which governs fishing in federal waters off the
coasts of Oregon, Washington and California, rode a five-year wave of
controversy toward its final decision on establishing an individual fishing
quota system for the West Coast groundfish fishery. Before the council decided,
13 members of Congress sent a letter, asking them “to support a fair,
well-designed IFQ program that will transform the groundfish industry from a
fishery struggling with by-catch problems and economic stagnancy into a
vibrant, ecologically, and economically sustainable fishery” that would benefit
fishermen, processors, coastal communities and the fishery resource.
Many other individuals, agencies, councils, commissions and
others weighed in, and many say they would watch carefully as the system
settled in.
“Catch share” is a catch-all term for fishery management
strategies that emphasize individually determined fishing quotas that require
those who ply the oceans to stop fishing when they reach their specified limit.
Whether the term is an acceptable form of speech or used as part of a muttered
curse depends on who’s talking.
Under traditional fishery management, fishermen compete for
the total allowable catch, which often turns into a fishing derby as vessels
rush to haul in as much as they can before the overall limit is reached.
NOAA officials say it creates a situation with “too many
vessels going after too few fish.” Fishing derbies, they note, put more boats
and gear in the water than necessary, exceed quotas, lead to high by-catch
levels and unsafe fishing conditions, and create a glut in the market, reducing
the economic value to fishermen and coastal communities.
“Catch shares allow fishermen to plan their businesses
better, and be more selective about when and how they catch their allotment,
because they know their share of the fishery is secure,” said Jim Balsiger,
acting administrator of NOAA Fisheries Service at the time the agency announced
its proposed catch share policy in 2008. “They also help ensure fishermen
adhere to annual catch limits, because the value of their share is directly
linked to the overall health of the fish stock and its habitat.”
Fishery managers say they are committed to finding ways “to
make the health of the oceans go hand-in-hand with the prosperity of fishermen
and the well-being of coastal communities.”
Advocates of catch shares say the current fishery management
system of trip limits, area closures, and gear restrictions to protect and
restore fish populations isn’t working. They say quotas are needed to revive
fisheries and to protect and restore fishing communities and jobs, noting that
catch shares decrease costs and boost fishermen’s revenue through greater
efficiency, yields, and dockside prices. Catch share programs divvy up the
total allowable catch into specific allocations – or shares – for fishermen,
cooperatives, communities, processors, and others, who can only fish until they
reach their assigned limit. Once they reach the limit, they must stop fishing.
Shares are typically allocated based on historical
participation levels in the fishery. The fishermen can decide how to catch
their allotment when weather, markets, and their individual business conditions
are most favorable.
NOAA officials say allocating shares “eliminates the
biologically and economically wasteful race to capture a share of the total,”
and the fishermen “gain an incentive to conserve fish stocks, avoid market
gluts, and catch their allowable share of the total at the least cost.”
Opponents said – and still say – quotas would decimate the
fishery, calling it de facto privatization of a public resource and another
regulatory burden in an already over-regulated industry.
Supporters say the catch share program gives each boat a
guaranteed “share” of the allowable groundfish catch for the year based on a
combination of he each vessel’s catch history and size. That guarantee,
advocates added, allows fishermen to fish at their own pace, and since they can
fish when prices are best, they can earn a higher profit from fewer fish. It
also protects the resource by giving fishermen an incentive to harvest in a
more efficient way that rebuild stocks. Fishermen can use their allocated share
to harvest, or they can trade or sell it.
Here to Stay?
Catch shares remain controversial, but they are now an
inevitable fact of fishing life for groundfish fishermen like Fitz.
Sustainable fisheries are considered an “essential
component” of national ocean policy, and NOAA policy supports catch shares as a
way to manage fisheries at sustainable levels, and boost their economic
performance. According to the agency, well-designed catch share programs “help
rebuild fisheries and sustain fishermen, communities, and vibrant working
waterfronts, including the cultural and resource access traditions that have
been a part of this country since its founding.”
Opponents remain cautious. Advocates point to results.
A 2012 NOAA report indicated that the catch shares program
is improving sustainability. It cited a “dramatic reduction” in by-catch and
discards under the new approach. Under this system, the report reiterated,
“Fishermen have time to fish more carefully and when weather and prices are
best. As a result, they can bring in higher quality fish for a higher price.”
Recent NOE numbers indicate that California fisheries
landings are improving, with 438 million pounds landed in 2010.
Even so, finding money for upgrades and equipment changes
has proven difficult, which is why the CFF was founded.
“As catches plummeted and fishing costs rose, banks were
increasingly unwilling to extend loans to fishermen,” states an EDF news
release, noting that the CFF was initiated to help West Coast fisheries
“transition to sustainable and profitable fishing.”
So far, 14 loans totaling almost $1.7 million have gone to
11 borrowers. In addition to Fitz, three other California commercial fishermen
– Roger Cullen, Bill Blue and Geoff Bettencourt – are among those borrowers.
Cullen aboard F/V Dorado and Blue onF/V Morning
 fish out of Morro Bay, while Bettencourt plies the seas from
Half Moon Bay aboard F/V Moriah Lee.
David Crabbe, another long-time California-based commercial
fishermen, is on the CFF fund advisory committee.
CFF also sponsors the Fisheries Business Network, an
informal network of fishermen, processors, distributors, retailers, restaurant
owners and others looking to boost fisheries sustainability and profitability.
Commercial fisherman interested in obtaining a loan through CFF should contact
Higgins at or call 415-293-6120.