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by Zeke Grader
Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations
In early January I was asked to make a presentation to the Pacific Fisheries Legislative Task Force at its Scripps meeting in LaJolla. The talk was intended to focus on some of the issues facing west coast fisheries this coming year, with emphasis on those areas where I felt the five state and one province group of legislators could take a leadership role.
In reviewing the myriad of issues facing our fisheries, from local watershed efforts aimed at restoring salmon populations to the impacts of global trade rules on fish conservation and our marketing of fish, there were five matters that jumped immediately to mind of coastwide concern where the Task Force could exert leadership in assisting working men and women in our fishing fleet and their coastal fishing communities. Those five, which I suggested become Task Force initiatives, were: 1) groundfish relief; 2) fishermen/scientist collaborative research; 3) value-added fisheries; 4) fish protection and the energy "crisis"; and 5) creating a role for fishermen in the control of invasive species.
I should point out that my recommendations to the group were my own, not necessarily those of PCFFA, but were based on my life-time of experience in the west coast fisheries and having dealt firsthand with a number of fishing issues over the past 25 years - local to global.
My presentation followed Pete Leipzig's of the Fishermen's Marketing Association (FMA) on his organization's proposal for a groundfish vessel buyback program. FMA, which represents trawlers from central California to the Washington Coast, has drafted a proposal that would entail a government and industry funded buyback of vessels and permits in the Pacific groundfish fishery.
Unlike the earlier proposal put forward by FMA that was widely criticized because it would simply have retired the groundfish permit, allowing the vessel to go into other fisheries, this latest proposal would both get the vessel out of the fisheries and retire all permits held by the vessel or its owner, state and federal. While there may be differences on a number of details - particularly among non-groundfish fishermen being asked to support some of the permit retirements - with the FMA proposal, it does warrant serious consideration and discussion. While I too may quibble about some of the provisions, FMA nevertheless is to be commended for its courage and hard work in developing the proposal.
My interest and that of the Task Force, every fishery agency, and members of Congress in getting groundfish relief, and specifically significantly reducing the harvest capacity in that fishery, is the fear that the problem will simply spread to other fisheries - albacore, crab, spot prawn, squid, you name it - unless something is done to reduce the total fishing effort for Pacific groundfish. The problem is not so much, "too many boats for too few fish," but too much total harvesting capacity. Only a small portion of the total available potential harvest capacity is actually being used. Just cutting the number of vessels in that fleet in half will therefore not help the resource nor those wishing to remain in the fishery, rather the fleet harvesting capacity itself must be halved or even cut by two-thirds.
That will mean taking out some of the largest and most productive vessels and that won't be cheap. Estimates are around $350 million to make a dent in the problem, and even that may not include the non-groundfish state permits (crab, for example) that some of these vessels also hold.
We're not talking a paltry $5 or $10 million here if the problem is to be truly resolved. And, by resolved, I don't mean just letting that fleet slowly go bankrupt, as some are suggesting, which in the meantime would just be keeping pressure on groundfish stocks in need of relief and contributing to excess capacity in other fisheries. Where is the money going to come from? Clearly there is a federal responsibility here for what happened in this fishery, and therefore I believe that the funding for the buyback should come from the federal government.
Why is the federal government, and not just industry, responsible? Keep in mind that the roots of the problem go back to the 1976 passage of the Fishery Conservation & Management Act. As part of the compromise in Congress - mostly to answer defense, foreign relations, and maritime industry objections - in passing HR 200 was the stipulation that foreign fleets could continue operating in U.S. waters (the newly created Fishery Conservation Zone from 3-200 miles) until there was U.S. fishing capability to fully utilize the resources within the FCZ (later renamed the EEZ).
Following passage of the act, the U.S. then embarked on an aggressive "Americanization" program to build up harvesting, processing and marketing capacity in order to fully utilize these fish resources. Emphasis was placed on building larger vessels, and trawlers especially. The U.S. Government was actively encouraging the fleet build up, and was offering up loan guarantees and tax deferrals for building new vessels through the Capital Construction Fund. Fishermen were encouraged to build new and bigger boats with the "full faith and credit" of the U.S. Government.
The problem with all of this, of course, as we know from hindsight, is that no one was looking to see how much fishing effort the stocks could actually sustain - particularly for maintaining economically viable fishing operations. In retrospect, what should have happened was a moratorium on any new entry into U.S. fisheries and an immediate closure of the U.S. zone to foreign fishing until the research and assessments were done to determine the size and configuration of a fleet that could sustainably harvest the stocks in an economically viable fishery. But then, hindsight is 20/20.
Moreover, because fish are a public trust resource, the responsibility for carrying out this research and stock assessments belonged to the federal government. Congress did not fund the research needed and NMFS didn't do it. It was not the duty of private vessel owners to initiate and embark on necessary research to determine the limits to this publicly-owned resource.
Yes, industry could have helped with the funding, but the ultimate responsibility for the research for these public resources was the public agency. What resulted, as we know all to well, is that fleet harvesting capacity exceeded the level of fishing the stocks could sustain. As a result, today many groundfish species are seriously depleted and may take as long as 50 years to rebuild. This fleet was built at the encouragement and partial funding of the feds. The federal government should now, I believe, assist in helping to reduce that fleet size to a level the stocks can sustain for economically viable operations.
Not only should the federal government take responsibility for funding the relief, the buyout and for the problems caused by its funds and policies, but there is ample precedent for funding a buy-back of vessels in the Pacific groundfish fishery. Our government, despite the free market rhetoric of many government and business leaders, regularly aids private enterprise - from airlines, to agriculture, to foreign trade missions, to logging roads in national forests, to oil and mineral extraction, to locks and channel construction and maintenance for tug and barge operations and to cheap, subsidized water and power in the west.
Indeed, the government has funded buy-backs from New England groundfish to North Pacific factory trawl operations. While the buy-backs in these and other cases have not been without their problems, and in New England of questionable impact, there is ample justification for a multi-million dollar groundfish vessel buyout now on the Pacific, particularly if such a program is designed not to repeat some of the problems that plagued buy-backs elsewhere.
What is needed now is for someone to take the lead. From the industry side, FMA has done its part on behalf of its trawl members, and organizations such as PCFFA, representing primarily non-trawl fishermen in and outside of the groundfish fishery, are willing to do their part. Help, however, is needed from the public sector here on the Pacific. Last year, the Pacific Fishery Management Council and the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission, the two groups that should have been in the lead, were missing in action, concerned it seemed only with some research monies that would be funneled through them. By default, the Oregon Coastal Zone Management Association ended up in the lead. We all owe a debt of gratitude to Ono Husing for his efforts, but he and his organization, as he readily admits, probably should have been in a support role because fisheries are not their primary responsibility. The problem was that on this and many other issues our own fishery agencies were nowhere to be found.
Assistance with getting Congress to appropriate the $350 million, or whatever it will take to fund an effective groundfish vessel buyback program, is where groups such as the Pacific Fisheries Legislative Task Force can and should be of help. Getting the money from the Congress and approved by the new administration will not be easy. Industry cannot do it alone. And, if appointed bodies such as the Pacific Council, the PSMFC and the state fishery agencies won't do their job, then it's time to call on our elected officials at the state and local level to assist their fishing fleets and communities in getting the federal government to take financial responsibility for the mess they've created.
Part of the long-term solution for groundfish and most other fisheries is getting better fishery data upon which to make decisions for fishing regulations and habitat protection, including decisions on where Marine Protected Areas may be appropriate. And, probably the most efficient and cost-effective way of getting this information is to establish collaborative research and stock assessment programs between fishermen and scientists.
By collaboration, I am not suggesting doing away with observer programs, which in fact need to be expanded, nor some of the studies that can only be conducted on research vessels. A great deal more can be done, however, to increase our knowledge by using fishermen and their vessels in research and stock assessment endeavors.
The rationale for fishermen/scientist collaboration was gone into in some detail in last month's issue of Fishermen's News. What is needed now is a climate that will foster such collaboration, including controls on how fishery research dollars will be spent. Ensuring such a climate exists is where groups such as the Pacific Fisheries Legislative Task Force can be of immense help, both at the state legislative level where some funds will be made available as well as in their recommendations to Congress on the types and amounts of fishery research that are needed. This collaboration is a second important initiative, I believe, that now needs to be carried forth.
It's widely recognized that the oceans' fisheries are not a limitless resource and that we're at the limit with most stocks on how much can be harvested. Indeed, cuts have already been imposed and more may be coming to get to a sustainable level of harvest in many fisheries. To offset the cutbacks, or to maintain and perhaps increase the economic value of the fish available for harvest means more attention will have to be paid to marketing. This means getting a better product to market and working for the most efficient means of distributing it (including direct sales to the public) if ex-vessel prices paid to fishermen are to increase. Marketing councils, such as ASMI, the Oregon Trawl Commission, the Oregon Salmon Commission, the California Salmon Council and the California Seafood Council need to be strengthened and others established where there is no promotional body for that fishery. Additionally, fishermen need to take a much more active interest in the workings of their marketing councils.
Another way to get more value for the fish harvested is to change marketing strategies. One example is the burgeoning live-fish fishery occurring in nearshore waters. Prices paid for live fish can sometimes be as much as ten times that paid for the same fish dead. While markets for live fish are limited, as are the places such fisheries can occur, the experience in New England (the work being done by the Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fishermen's Association) and California indicate that it is possible to establish high value/low impact fisheries that can support a limited number of small-boat commercial fishing operations - individuals who may otherwise have been displaced by regulations and larger vessel fishing operations.
A second example of getting more value by changing marketing strategies is taking some of the fish historically used in "industrial fisheries" for meal and low-value canning operations and developing fresh markets for them. Sardine, which are now making a strong comeback along the Pacific Coast, are one such potential fishery. Working with chefs and restaurant owners it should be possible to develop methods of preparation and presentation that would make sardines standard fare (much as has been done with squid) on restaurant menus, from hors d'oeuvres to entrees. Such a change in marketing could open the way for a number of small boat sardine fisheries, instead of merely a few large vessels taking the quotas solely for meal and canning purposes. Anchovy, herring and mackerel are other candidate fisheries for developing fresh markets.
Changing market strategies will not happen in a vacuum. It will require, among other things, changes in fishing regulations, and perhaps better consumer information, including labeling. Conserving and rebuilding fish stocks is of paramount importance, but getting the most value for every fish harvested is also critical to ensuring the economic viability of our fisheries. Implementing new markets/marketing strategies should be a "no-brainer" as a needed initiative.
The rolling electrical blackouts now occurring in California and the high prices consumers are paying at the pumps pose a very real and eminent threat to fish protection and fishing operations. For example, the efforts to enact fish-friendly instream flows, and even remove dams, on our rivers to restore salmon populations could be undone throughout the west by the public clamor for dependable and affordable electricity. In fact, much of the progress made over the past decade to recover salmon stocks could quickly be undone as a result of the current electric "crisis" that is part real and part contrived that we are now faced with in the west.
Work on dam removal could come to a rapid halt. Already we have seen the hydro-electric "crisis" being touted by water diverters as a rationale to oppose restoring a portion of the flows to the Trinity River in northern California.
The energy "crisis" is not just a problem for salmon fisheries, however. The high price at the pumps and the recent shortages of home heating oil could create a clamor for new offshore oil drilling the same as we saw in the late 1970's and early 1980's. Some in the Bush Administration are already talking about new leasing of offshore tracts for drilling. Offshore rigs, as fishermen from Santa Barbara well know, pose a number of problems for fishing, from the chronic and small unreported oil spills, the disposal of often-toxic drill muds on the ocean bottom, to debris on the seabed - all affecting fishing operations. The commercial fishing industry (except tuna), in concert with conservation groups and local governments, was successful in stopping new offshore oil drilling in the 1980's. It may be called back into action again if the public becomes convinced that offshore oil will lower the prices at the pumps and assure dependable heating oil supplies.
An initiative is needed to educate the public and public policy makers about hydro-electric power and offshore oil drilling, to be sure that fish stocks and fishermen are not sacrificed in what, I believe, is a largely manufactured crisis to satisfy public demands for cheap and dependable energy. As energy users ourselves, we must be engaged in the energy debate, including looking at conservation measures and promoting alternative energy sources.
Finally, I believe, it is time that fishermen be allowed a part in solving the problem of the newest threat to some of our fish stocks - the introduction of non-native, or invasive, species into the aquatic environment. Invasives such as green crab potentially threaten native Dungeness crab populations and, of course, there is growing concern with the impact escaped farmed Atlantic salmon are having on our native Pacific salmon stocks. Here on the west coast, for example, San Francisco Bay, which is the gateway between the Pacific and the Sierras of one of the west coast's largest salmon populations, which supports a major herring roe fishery and which was at one time the largest nursery area for Dungeness crab on the Pacific coast is now regarded as the single most invaded water body in the world.
To date, most of the discussion among agencies and academics has been on prevention - mostly aimed at ships' ballast water discharges - and more studies. Prevention is critical and not just by regulating ballast water, but also stopping the dumping of aquarium species into the wild and stopping once and for all non-native fish escaping from fish farm operations. The invasives problem, however, is far larger than can be handled by mere prevention or by mere studies of those critters that have already established themselves. It must also entail a program for control or eradication of the invasives that are already now present. What effort there has been at control, sadly, has not been to protect fish stocks but for such things as protecting water diversions at California's massive state and federal pumps in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta or for clearing waterways for recreational boating.
Fishermen have a real interest in the prevention and control/eradication of invasives because of the threat many of those species pose to commercially-important native fish stocks or their habitats. Fishermen can, in many instances, also be part of the solution - if they'd only be allowed to be. Commercial or bounty fisheries on some of these invasives may not only be an effective and cost-efficient means for control and eradication, but could, indeed, put some fishermen and their vessels displaced from other fisheries back to work.
Sure there are some problems with this approach. One, for example, is preventing people from introducing invasives in yet other water bodies once a commercial fishery is established. Another is the fact that we would be deliberately pursuing a non-sustainable fishery and the question arises what happens to those involved once an invasive species is fished down or commercially eradicated. But these issues are hardly insurmountable.
What we are faced with it seems though are a lot of agency types who are either paralyzed about taking any action to control or eradicate these pests, or are more concerned with just studying the problem and doing a lot of hand-wringing at symposiums and legislative hearings. In the case of the Chinese mitten crab, for example, I was astonished to hear California Fish & Game officials say fishermen could never fish down this population of invasives (in fact, mitten crab populations have been fished down in China and Europe) while they block or restrict other types of commercial fishing out of fear of "overfishing."
I am not suggesting here any one type of solution nor specifics on how commercial fishermen could help in the control or eradication of any particular invasive species. What I am suggesting, however, to both lawmakers and agency heads is that fishermen should be engaged in efforts to prevent and control or eradicate invasive species in our marine environment. This is an initiative that needs to go forward now and could be started with the development of policies on control and eradication, including the participation of fishermen in such endeavors.
Fishermen's News readers will obviously have other ideas and suggestions for initiatives that should go forward this year necessary for protecting and improving our industry. The above five that I suggested to lawmaker members of the Pacific Fisheries Legislative Task Force you may wish to consider along with your own list. Whatever you think of the above list, or whatever you have on your own list, it is important this year for ourselves and the industry and culture we love that we act.
Zeke Grader is the Executive Director of PCFFA, the west coast's largest organization of commercial fishermen. PCFFA's Southwest Regional Office can be reached at: PO Box 29370, San Francisco, CA 94129-0370, (415)561-5080. PCFFA's Northwest Regional Office can be reached at: PO Box 11170, Eugene, OR 97440-3370, (541)689-2000. Our e-mail is: <firstname.lastname@example.org> and our Internet home page is at: <http://www.pcffa.org>.
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