Morro Bay "rock" and docks at Morro Bay, California. To ease the transition to more sustainable forms of fishing, the Conservancy worked with fishermen here to buy back federal trawling permits and vessels and is now working with the community and scientists on more sustainable approaches to fishing. Photo ©Bridget Besaw

California’s Fishing Industry Regains Its Sea Legs

It’s nearly 500 miles from Point Conception, just north of Los Angeles, to Fort Bragg, California. In between these port towns, the California Coast is peppered with picturesque fishing villages where nature is the main attraction and locally caught seafood is the meal du jour. If you peek beneath the postcard veneer of these seaside towns, you’ll find a life lesson in resilience — resilience of community, coastal economies and the natural resources that support both.

In 2007, federal fishery managers quietly predicted the end of groundfish fishing in most of California’s traditional ports. The fishery was in crisis, and these communities were very much at a turning point.

Groundfish Fishery Hits Rock Bottom

Fishing communities along the coast of California, like Morro Bay, Monterey, Half Moon Bay and Fort Bragg, have depended on catching groundfish — species like petrale sole, sablefish, rockfish, sanddabs, Dover sole and thornyheads — and bottom trawling since at least the 1970s.

With landings and fishing efforts substantially declining from 1980 to 2006, the economic conditions in these small port communities reflected coast wide trends. Dockside prices of trawl-caught species remained low and overhead costs were high.

20 miles offshore from Morro Bay, California, fisherman Bill Blue hauls fish aboard his boat. Bill Blue is participating in The Nature Conservancy's Trawler Permit Program. Photo ©Bridget Besaw
20 miles offshore from Morro Bay, California, fisherman Bill Blue hauls fish aboard his boat, the MV Morning Light. Bill Blue is participating in The Nature Conservancy’s Trawler Permit Program. Photo ©Bridget Besaw

Many fishermen in the region held a dim view of the industry’s future. Management decisions and litigation resulted in restricted harvest of depleted species. Sharp declines in groundfish catches prompted a federal disaster declaration in 2000. Some fishermen were actively seeking ways to reduce fishing pressure, reform the fishery, or engage in alternative harvest opportunities.

Owning the Solution

By 2009, the fishery was restructured to a catch share system. Fishermen with permits are assured a set percentage of the annual catch of nearly 90 species of groundfish to harvest as they see fit. By giving fishermen ownership in the fishery, the hope was to reduce the yearly “race for fish” and encourage fishermen to care for the long-term health of the resource.

The question then becomes, What can fishermen do to care for the fish? Comply with the rules, obviously. But is that enough?

A member of the crew aboard the fishing boat "MV Morning Light" baits hooks on a "long line" before setting off from Morro Bay. Photo © Bridget Besaw
A member of the crew aboard the fishing boat “MV Morning Light” baits hooks on a “long line” before setting off from Morro Bay. Photo © Bridget Besaw

The problems with fisheries are often associated with the idea of the oceans as the “commons.” The tragedy of the commons is that when a resource is available to everyone and owned by no one, no one is compelled or empowered to care for it. Therefore, it is thought necessary for government to intervene and create rules or privatize the resource and allow market forces to do their work.

Are those the only plausible options?

Fishermen Take Stock in Their Future

A constructive approach is one in which local fishermen’s energy and knowledge are engaged in finding the best ways to make their fishery — their industry, their communities, the resource — more sustainable. Fishermen are keen observers of the natural world and their vessels offer a platform for cooperative research. Industry groups like the Alaska Pollock and Pacific whiting fisheries have successfully regulated themselves to meet conservation standards – such as limits on bycatch – when given the flexibility and incentive to do so.

This approach is known as cooperative management, an arrangement where responsibility for the fishery is shared between government and users groups. Cooperative management is not an alternative to regulation. Rather, it focuses on using locally led management to encourage innovation in fishing practices and compliance with conservation performance standards.

Bill Blue's boat sets out from Morro Bay harbor to fish the coastal waters of California. Photo © Bridget Besaw
Bill Blue’s boat sets out from Morro Bay harbor to fish the coastal waters of California. Photo © Bridget Besaw

In 2015, in response to concerns by industry leaders and conservation organizations, NOAA Fisheries formed a Cooperative Research and Management Working Group that found that greater use of cooperative management approaches would yield benefits – both for accomplishing the agency’s mission and improving relationships with stakeholders. The working group made a number of recommendations that the agency is now working to implement.

This is progress, but there is more to do. Congress is considering legislation to update federal fisheries laws – and they could make changes that will remove some of the barriers to cooperative management.

California Fishing Communities Are a Model for Collaboration

So, how are things going in these communities? Leaders have stepped forward and are building local fishing associations and collaborating with The Nature Conservancy and like-minded fishermen from other communities facing similar challenges. Working with the Conservancy, these fishermen are securing their communities’ fishing heritage and bringing in fresh local seafood. They are working together to use innovative technology to share data to map and direct our fishing and to protect sensitive species and habitats. They’re also at the forefront of securing permanent local ownership of fishing rights to ensure long-term participation in their traditional fisheries.

Using a longline, crewmen aboard Dave Rose's boat, the MV Nikki J, haul in a Black Gill Rock Fish (a very orange fish with bulging eyes) off Big Sur, California. Photo © Bridget Besaw
Using a longline, crewmen aboard Dave Rose’s boat, the MV Nikki J, haul in a Black Gill Rock Fish (a very orange fish with bulging eyes) off Big Sur, California. Photo © Bridget Besaw

Together they have established the California Groundfish Collective. Their collaborative efforts have resulted in the highest sustainability rankings from the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch Program of “Green/Best Choice” for their seafood.

Working with the Conservancy, these fishermen are securing their communities’ fishing heritage and bringing in fresh local seafood. They are working together to use innovative technology to share data to map and direct our fishing and to protect sensitive species and habitats.

Together, they are creating healthier oceans and stronger fishing businesses in their communities.

By Erika Feller, Director of the North American Fisheries program at The Nature Conservancy.

Opinions expressed on TALK and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Nature Conservancy.
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