The Take on Hake

Any sense of dead reckoning
indicates the Pacific Coast hake (whiting) fishery is alive and well, thanks to
coordinated, collaborative efforts within the industry to avoid by-catch and
enhance sustainability.

Those efforts netted the
attention of government officials and fishermen in Mexico as they try to decide
how best to manage an emerging hake fishery in the Gulf of California.

In 2012, fishermen from Puerto
Penasco (Rocky Point) asked the folks from the San Francisco-based
Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) to work with them to improve management of
their growing hake fishery. A series of meetings ensued, with fishery and EDF
leaders deciding to take initial steps to establish a catch share system based
on the successful system launched in 2011 by the US fishery. 
Toward that end,
more than 20 government officials and fishermen from Mexico converged on
Newport, Oregon at the end of July to get the take on hake during a two-day
exchange of information and ideas with their US counterparts.

The exchange in Newport focused
on the first-hand experiences of the fishermen, managers and others involved in
the US hake catch shares system. Dorothy Lowman, vice chair of the PFMC and a
fisheries consultant, said EDF considered the exchange “essential” to getting
the word out about “the process, benefits and challenges of establishing
rights-based management” – something EDF and others earnestly promote.

The exchange offered the
visitors a broad understanding of the regulations in place for the US hake
fishery; gear modifications and other innovations, including perspective on
monitoring requirements and technology; and fishery oversight and the process
involved (Pacific Marine Fishery Council, fishery associations, government
relations, and collaborations with marine scientists) in managing the fishery.

Under development for the past
decade, the US whiting fleet first immersed itself in the hake catch share
program in January 2011.

Fishery managers say it replaced
the traditional all-out derby rush to catch as many fish as possible before the
fleet reached the quota the US government sets each year. A catch share system
divvies up that annual fish quota among individual fishermen based on their
landings from previous years. Highly controversial when first introduced, catch
shares are gaining momentum and support, although the system still has its
detractors, who say it has a few obvious flaws. Overall, however, it works.

Heather Mann is executive
director of the Newport, Oregon-based Midwater Trawlers Cooperative, an
organization representing vessel owners who fish for hake off the Pacific
coast, as well as pollock and cod in the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska.
Currently serving on the PFMC Groundfish Advisory Subpanel and Electronic
Monitoring Workgroup, Mann has worked with the fishing industry in a number of
ways, including as an independent commercial fisheries consultant.

She participated extensively in
the development of the quota program for the groundfish fishery.
“Each person who receives a
quota can fish when it makes the most sense,” Mann noted. “You are guaranteed a
certain amount unless you transfer it to someone else.”

The U.S. catch share system,
with all of its nuances and ramifications, captured the attention of the
Mexican fishermen, who wanted to learn all they could to enhance their efforts.

A Nascent Fishery
Mateo Lopez Leon, president of
the Federation of Shipowners, who owns a boat that catches shrimp, finfish and
hake, said they haven’t developed the potential of the hake fishery in the Gulf
of California “the way we like it” and wanted “to see what fishermen in this
region have done to better manage and sell” hake and “to see what fishermen in
this region have done” to manage the fishery to their economic advantage with
the least impact on the ecosystem.

Although the species is the same
as whiting caught in the US Pacific region, researchers say it’s a different
stock restricted to the upper Gulf of California region. Mexico’s National
Fisheries Institute notes that scientists aren’t sure where the fish migrate. A
study scheduled to begin in January 2014 will focus on making that

Currently, the Mexican hake
fishery is primarily a part-time venture for shrimp trawlers.

“Our boats are not whiting
boats, but adapted shrimp boats,” said Leon. “The only thing we change is the
net. We can fish whenever we want, and we don’t have quotas. You just go out
there and trawl and catch what you catch.”

No specific regulations exist,
and the only limiting factor is a required finfish permit, which about 65
shrimp trawlers currently have. Most boats (59) hail from Puerto Penasco, with
four from San Felipe and 10 from Guaymas. Their boats are small industrial
trawlers measuring between 62 and 92 feet. 
Fishing is done with modified shrimp
or bottom fish trawl nets at depths of 90 to 200 fathoms. Catch volumes and
effort have risen each year for the past four seasons. In 2011, 37 boats made
128 trips and hauled in more than 1,700 tons of hake. In 2012, more boats made
more trips, bringing in more than 2,000 tons. This season, 57 boats made 251
trips and landed more than 4,800 tons. Average catch for a seven-day trip is
35,000 pounds.

About 70 percent of the catch
goes to Eastern Europe, mostly Russia, 20 percent enters the domestic market,
and 10 percent goes to the United States.

Marketing is a concern. “Our
main fishery is shrimp, because we haven’t found the right market for
distribution of whiting,” Leon said.

Without a good market to send to
with diverse distribution, prices to the fishermen vary widely, anywhere from
40 cents to $1 per two pounds of gutted hake. With no shoreside processing
plants available to them, the fishermen must offload their catches for
transport to inland plants.

By-catch is another concern.

“Our initial research indicates
that there is likely significant by-catch, but this has yet to be verified
directly by onboard observers,” EDF noted. Additional studies and observations
are needed, which is a main reason why the Mexican fishery managers and
fishermen sought assistance from EDF, and ultimately reached out to their US

“We want to be better – not just
better whiting fishermen, but a better whiting industry to avoid running out of
this valuable resource,” Leon said. “We want to preserve the biomass, and the
only way is through a catch share program. We need to learn so we have a
product that will be with us now and in the future.”

The foundation for establishing
a catch share program and managing the whiting fishery in an eco-friendly way,
Mann told them, is the science and “how scientists work with the industry and
how the industry and managers work together.”

Putting “us” in US hake fishery
The hake fishery was once an
every-fisherman-for himself derby-style race to harvest as many fish as
possible before the overall quota was reached, usually within weeks. Much has
changed during the past decade, especially since 2011, when the catch share
system went into effect.

“It allows much more flexibility
and adaptability for each sector to achieve its maximum catch level,” said
Mann, noting that the fishery features four sectors: catcher/processor,
mothership, shoreside and tribal. Each sector receives an allocation of whiting
each year.

“This is the most abundant
commercial fish species on the West Coast, and one of the largest fisheries by
volume,” she added.

Landings have averaged almost
221,000 metric tons per season “for almost 50 years,” with a low of 90,000
metric tons in 1980 and a record high of 367,000 in 2005. The catch reached
157,000 metric tons in 2012, and the US fleet’s total allowable catch for 2013
is almost 265,000 metric tons, prior to the annual tribal set-aside allocation.
If the tribes do not catch their allotted share, the remainder is reapportioned
to the non-tribal fishery.

The fishery’s beginnings trace
to the 1962 joint venture operations with Russia (then the Soviet Union). By
1989, foreign fishing was no longer allowed in US waters, and joint venture
operations ceased in 1991. Japan’s development of surimi technology boosted the
domestic hake fishery and it grew quickly in response to market demand. It also
experienced the ups and downs engendered by market vagaries.
An altering ocean, changing
political climate, and proliferating government regulations – especially in
terms of limiting by-catch of non-targeted and sensitive species, required
changes within the fishery itself.

Mann said NOAA and state
enforcement of by-catch limits led to peer pressure among fishermen to reduce
by-catch, and ultimately to adopt the catch share system incorporated with gear
modifications and other efforts to avoid by-catch and keep the fishery viable.
Net and other gear modifications and technological gadgetry alleviated some of
the by-catch worries. But more was needed to turn the tide and make the fishery
more viable. A proposal to introduce catch shares met with major opposition,
but after innumerable public meetings, tweaks and turmoil, the system was
adopted and went into effect two years ago.

By eliminating the need to make
a mad dash for fish, catch shares opened the hatch to more cooperation and
collaboration among fishermen, in what some say put more of the “us” into the
US. hake fishery.

“Fishermen used to spend more
time avoiding salmon and groundfish than catching whiting, because if you
exceed by-catch levels, they shut down the fishery and you lose the chance at
whiting,” Mann noted. “Fishermen now work together and share information,
identifying hot spots to minimize and avoid by-catch.” They highlight closed
area and advisory areas, which can shift around throughout the season.

Another component of the catch
share system designed to cut down on by-catch is the requirement for

Keeping Watch
“Every vessel must have an
observer at all times,” stated Mann, noting that catcher/processors must have
two observers on each vessel. “It ensures 100 percent accountability. Fishermen
have to prove what’s caught and released.”

One drawback to observers, she
added, is cost in both money and time. At $450 per day, it’s a spendy
proposition. Initially funded completely by the federal government, the
industry is obligated to take on more of the expense, and in 2014, government
funding is likely to dwindle to a small stipend. Fishery participants must find
a way to pay those costs.

Another problem with needing a
human observer on board is the inability at times to find one when needed. A
vessel cannot go out without the observer aboard, and dawdling at the dock
waiting for one wastes time and costs the fisherman even more in lost catch.

“They are exploring electronic
monitoring to replace human observers,” said Mann.

Dayna Matthews, NOAA’s west
coast enforcement coordinator, said the hake fishery uses two types of
observers: one for biological sampling, the other for by-catch oversight.

“Hake boats had science
observers prior to the quota program, with about five to 20 percent of trips
monitored,” said Matthews, who has 34 years of natural resource law enforcement
experience, with expertise in west coast federal fisheries, Endangered Species
Act enforcement, and catch shares and electronic monitoring and compliance.
“With catch shares, they must have 100 percent observer coverage, both at sea
and shoreside. They take samples and monitor discards at sea that are deducted
from individual or co-op catch shares.”

Concerns remain over the value
of data, and the costs ($300 to $600 per day, Matthews noted) and availability
of observers, especially at isolated ports.

“Vessels have lost trips and
market due to lack of observers,” he stated. “We need a mechanism to train and
certify more observers.”

Monitoring via video cameras is
the wave of the future. It, too, comes with a price tag, but Matthews said it
could reduce observer costs and eliminate the issues of accessibility and lost
trips. Initial cost can be high for the cameras (as many as 10), computer and
software, sensors and battery backup. Electronic monitoring has several
variables that can enhance or impede it, among them equipment reliability, data
quality and timeliness, enforceability, and fleet behavior.

“Cameras will not work unless
the fleet wants them to,” Matthews concluded. “Success depends on fleet

All of this, along with improved
on-board and onshore technology and techniques for maintaining hake quality,
indicate a bright future for the fishery – one the U.S. fishermen’s
counterparts from Mexico hope to emulate.

Is the catch share system

Despite concerns and complaints,
landings seem to indicate it is. As of press time, Pettinger said the Pacific
fleet had hauled in 95 million pounds of hake – more than twice last season’s
catch – and is on course to possibly reach 150 million pounds. Enough said for