Groundfish Quota Plan Marks First Anniversary with Mixed Reviews – More Changes Loom Through 2013

By Terry Dillman

February 2012

A long-debated groundfish management system that officially weighed anchor last January remains controversial as everyone involved tries to adjust to new relationships and managers continue to tinker with and tweak procedures.

The Northwest Regional Office of NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service inaugurated what’s known as a catch share or quota system for groundfish trawlers who harvest off the coasts of Oregon, Washington and California on Jan. 11, 2011. The overall aim, according to NOAA officials, is to “increase individual fishermen’s accountability, fully harvest the quota the trawl fishermen are granted, increase the economic and biological stability in the fishery, and sustain fishing jobs and fishing communities.”

Managers say the fishery – which includes popular species like sole, and Pacific whiting – is worth as much as $40 million per year, and the quota system is designed to stabilize it, making it safer and more efficient.

The catch share program divvies up the total allowable catch into specific allocations – or shares – for fishermen, cooperatives, communities, processors, and others. They can only fish until they reach their assigned limit. 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. New regulations established formal allocations for limited entry trawl participants, along with procedures for initial permit issuance, endorsements, and quota shares.

With the system’s first anniversary in the hold, reviews – while decidedly mixed – are steering toward guardedly optimistic.

Things are “going pretty good,” said Sara Skamser, who runs Foulweather Trawl in Newport, Oregon. “We’re crazy busy here.”

Skamser is a seasoned trawl manufacturer, developing and marketing “excluders” (including a key one to keep halibut out of trawl nets) and other gear designed to help fishermen avoid catching non-target, over-fished or endangered species. As such, she has direct contact with fishermen from Alaska to California almost daily, and is keenly aware of how catch shares have impacted the fishery, from small boats to large trawlers, as well as supporting marine-related businesses.

Some fishermen, she noted, stayed out of the fishery this season, afraid of the implications and taking a wait-and-see stance. Others took the plunge.

“They had to face facts, and those who stayed were pretty happy,” said Skamser, noting that many were able to deliver more pounds of fish at a better price. “It’s doing what it’s designed to do in terms of conservation and environmental impact. It made the guys fish cleaner. It’s really clean fishing.”

Advocates like David Jincks of Newport, a commercial trawler and member of the Port of Newport’s board of commissioners, say the system is working, making the West Coast trawl fishery “the most accountable” in the nation. They say fishermen are earning more for their catches; are working together, replacing the usually fierce competition with communication and collaboration; and experimenting with new gear innovations and modifications designed to reduce or eliminate bycatch of unwanted species.

By providing guaranteed individual shares and ending the rush to sea to catch fish before a competitor does, he said fishermen can take their time and “fish smarter.”

There are some drawbacks.

Skamser referred to the “mountains of paperwork” required for involvement in the program, and the glitches related to managing all that paper. The system also put fishermen with lease permits – mostly smaller vessels – out of business, as many observers expected. Participating fishermen are also required to share the costs of having observers on all fishing trips, along with an overhanging “buy-back fee” that collects five percent of the value of fish deliveries.

Members of the Pacific Fishery Management Council (PFMC), fishermen, federal and state government leaders and others are watching closely as the process unfolds.

During its June 2011 session, the council established the ad hoc Cost Recovery Committee (CRC) to provide recommendations on ways to recover at least some of the costs. The Magnuson Stevens Act requires a regional fishery management council to develop a catch recovery program for fisheries managed under a quota system, paid for by the fishing industry up to a limit of three percent of the value of the fishery. In the end, fishermen say the three percent value would amount to far higher than three percent of the profit from the fishery, and the CRC is in place to help shape a fair and equitable cost recovery program.

Jincks, who heads up the Midwater Trawlers Cooperative (MTC) in Newport, is the committee’s shoreside whiting representative, and had referred to the fishery having turned into “a derby nightmare” long before management agencies began steering a course toward developing the quota system. He and others say the former fishery management system of trip limits, area closures and gear restrictions designed to protect and restore fish populations wasn’t working.

The quotas, they note, 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.

Now they need to figure out how to pay the piper and work out other glitches. Skamser said the fishery is moving from a doom-and-gloom, end-of-the-fishery attitude and moving forward, despite ongoing trepidation on the part of many who remain skeptical of the system and others who simply outright give it two fins down. “There will probably be a lot fewer boats,” she said.

Advocates say the remaining vessels and operators will be much more viable.

Getting Here From There
NOAA Fisheries Service mailed applications to more than 270 trawl fishermen and processors along the West Coast near the end of 2010, requesting their participation in what many consider the most vital course change in West Coast trawl fisheries management in a generation of fishing. Those application forms were a critical step for any fisherman who wanted access to a specified share of the valuable bottomfish trawl harvest.

NOAA officials endorsed the system, which amended the Pacific Coast Groundfish Management Plan that governs trawl groundfish harvests off the coasts of Oregon, Washington and California. They said the proposed system would for the first time ever “make a major shift in how certain West Coast fish harvests are managed” – a change that could benefit both fish and fishermen, and lead to “economic efficiencies that are difficult to obtain under traditional management schemes.”

They also said the system had gained the support of the trawl industry after undergoing a controversial process initiated by PFMC in 2003.

Sustainable fisheries are considered an “essential component” of national ocean policy, and a new NOAA policy adopted in 2009 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.”

Will Stelle, NOAA Fisheries Service northwest regional administrator, said the program “can benefit both fish and fishermen,” and “lead to economic efficiencies that are difficult to obtain under traditional management, while sustaining healthy fish stocks.” He has noted that traditional methods create a situation of “too many vessels going after too few fish.”

Share and Share Alike?
By whatever name – trawl rationalization, catch share or quota – the system replaces the conventional practice of setting a fleet-wide quota of fish and setting the fishermen loose to compete with each other and catch as much of the quota as possible before the fishery closes. 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.

Advocates deem it a more equitable way to allocate the harvest, dividing each season’s total allowable catch or quota into shares controlled by individual fishermen or processors. Environmental groups say catch shares reduce waste and accidental catch of protected species.

NOAA’s top administrator Jane Lubchenco, who hails from Oregon, is making catch shares a vital piece of NOAA’s fishing policy. A NOAA task force is busy looking at other fisheries for potential conversion to individual catch shares.

Opponents still say quotas could decimate the fishery, calling it de facto privatization of a public resource, and another regulatory burden in an already over-regulated industry. More than a few fishermen feel they are caught in a situation over which they have no control. Some estimate that about 40 to 60 percent of the drag fleet will eventually disappear, leaving ports in an economic lurch. Many said the catch share plan would affect all fishermen. Those who voluntarily or involuntarily drop out of the groundfish fishery, but want to continue fishing, would cast their lot with other lucrative fisheries, such as pink shrimp and Dungeness crabs, intensifying competition in those already tight markets.

Fishery managers are determined to move forward. Much work remains.

The PFMC continued to focus on a variety of “trailing actions” during its November 2011 meeting. The council will continue to look at the issues, aiming to take action during the March and April 2012 meetings, and put council recommendations in place by Jan. 1, 2013. Other issues, among them reduction of observer costs, must wait until 2014.

Perhaps the biggest looming change of all is allowing permit holders to sell their permits, beginning in 2013. Opponents say it will bring the death knell for smaller trawlers no longer able to compete under the quota system.

Terry Dillman can be reached at