November 1, 2012 | Vol 68, No. 11

NOAA Officials Say Trawlers Adjusting Nicely to ‘Catch Shares’ System

Information gleaned by NOAA Fisheries Service during the first year of the West Coast trawl fishery’s use of the “catch shares” system, officially known as individual fishing quotas (IFQs), suggests that trawl fishermen are learning to plan their fishing year and altering their strategies to glean what fishery managers say are “notable” results. For fishermen, processors, researchers and fishery managers, 2011 represented a vital “transition year” to see how those involved in the fishery would adapt.

The process initially dragged due to crabbing opportunities and a delay in the program start date. But it bounced back in a first-year effort that Brad Pettinger, director of the Oregon Trawl Commission, said “exceeded most people’s expectations.”

According to a 16-page NOAA report, 138 quota holders – with shares fished by 108 vessels – landed their fish at 49 processing or landing sites. Although average vessel landings were somewhat lower in 2011 (95 percent of the historical average), average vessel revenues were much higher, reflecting a combination of a bigger whiting quota and higher prices, most notably for sablefish.

Revenues reached $54 million for the combined whiting and non-whiting West Coast IFQ fishery in 2011 compared to an annual average of $38 million from 2006 – when the Pacific Fishery Management Council (PFMC) began the controversial effort toward establishing the quota system – to 2010.

“Although fishing activity in the early months was noticeably lower than in prior years, groundfish fishing under the catch share system reflected a year-round fishery based on decisions of fishermen rather than by government regulations,” the report noted.

Overall, landings during most months in 2011 were lower than the pre-quota average. In June, monthly landings for non-whiting rose to the previous five-year average. By August, revenue in the fishery’s non-whiting component “had far surpassed the historical average,” a pattern that continued through December. With a higher whiting catch allowance and higher prices, shoreside whiting landings and revenue rose “dramatically,” with landings up by 40 percent and revenue up by 121 percent compared to historical averages.

“Feeling more secure that their quota pounds for by-catch species were sufficient to last the year,” the report noted. Fishermen also “made a final push for landings” in December.

Oregon ports Astoria and Newport led the way in overall landings – with 107.7 million pounds at Astoria (45 percent) and 57.3 million (24 percent) at Newport. Westport, Washington, finished third with 44 million pounds (18 percent), followed by Ilwaco (9.5 million pounds), Charleston-Coos Bay (8 million), Eureka, California (4.7 million), Fort Bragg (2.9 million), Moss Landing, Monterey, Morro Bay, Avila (2.2 million), Bellingham, Washington (1.5 million), and San Francisco and Princeton – Half moon Bay (849,000 pounds).

“This reflects the increased catch and total allowable catch of Pacific whiting in 2011,” the report noted. “Having individual annual quotas allowed catch share vessels to fish crab and shrimp without losing their access to groundfish. In past years, under the ‘trip limit’ system, if fishermen chose to participate in these fisheries they would forego their groundfish opportunity.”

The fledgling quota management system also allows fishermen to catch with non-trawl gear, which managers say is often more valuable. About 6 percent of the 2011 non-whiting landings were made with non-trawl gear, and accounted for more than 20 percent of the non-whiting revenue, again primarily on the value of sablefish.

“Catch in the 2011 shore-based whiting fleet was also more evenly distributed throughout the season than in recent years, when erratic patterns of monthly landings and short season lengths were common,” NOAA officials stated.

“One of the biggest changes was in the reduction of discards as personal accountability, coupled with the ability to trade quota pounds, really made a difference,” said Pettinger.

Discards in 2011 accounted for less than 5 percent of non-whiting fleet catch overall, according to the NOAA report. Combined with whiting catch, the overall discard rate was about 1.3 percent.

“Reduced discard rates are beneficial from a scientific and economic perspective,” the report indicated. “Access to biological information on an increased portion of the catch contributes to improved stock assessments. Fishermen can also sell their retained catch, which can improve their economic efficiency.”

Retention rates for many species within the non-whiting fleet, especially rebuilding species, were “much higher” in 2011 than the year prior. “Retention rates reflect that fishermen are keeping more fish and can benefit from marketing them,” the report stated.

According to the report, the fishery also substantially reduced its bycatch rates for rebuilding species. Incidental catch of rebuilding species was lower in the non-whiting fleet, ranging between 10 percent and 97 percent of 2010 levels, depending on the species.

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 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’re watching carefully as the system settles 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 bycatch 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 said 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.

Nothing New

Catch share efforts, including limited access programs and individual fishing quotas, were introduced in 1990, and are used in 13 of the nation’s commercial fisheries, with four new programs set to begin during the next year.

“From Florida to Alaska, catch share programs help fishing communities provide good jobs while rebuilding and sustaining healthy fisheries and ocean ecosystems,” Jane Lubchenco, NOAA’s administrator, has previously noted. “Although this is a national policy, our emphasis is on local consideration and design of catch shares that take into consideration commercial and recreational fishing interests.”

While Alaska, British Columbia and other fisheries in the United States and worldwide have adopted quota management systems, this is the first such program ever proposed and adopted for a West Coast fishery. It’s also one of the most geographically extensive and diverse in the nation, featuring 60 species of commercially valuable West Coast groundfish.

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. While those results reflect only one year, officials say “a picture is emerging that is indeed positive for the groundfish resource, the fishermen and their communities.”

NOAA’s fishery managers said after the first year, fishermen know more about what to expect, and “are using tools of the new system to plan their fishing year and are fishing more assertively in pursuit of those plans.”

As a market-based mechanism, NOAA officials say quotas place business decisions in the hands of fishermen and maximize economic benefits to support more stable jobs and coastal communities. In addition to catch share quotas, the fishery also features a “vastly improved” monitoring system, using 100 percent observer coverage at sea and 100 percent monitoring of landings on shore.

“This refined monitoring system allows the fishery to be managed on an individual vessel basis, rather than via fleet-wide measures,” the NOAA report stated, noting that trawl fishermen “are becoming more confident about the system, and both they and the fish stocks they target are benefiting.”

The fledgling system allows fishermen to trade the pounds of fish they are entitled to among each other. A fisherman who has a small allotment of one particular species of fish or just doesn’t want to harvest a particular species, can trade the so-called quota-pounds to another fisherman in exchange for quota-pounds that he does want.

Total pounds of such vessel-to-vessel transfers this year are 25 percent more than the first six months of 2011. “The number of such transfers – a good indicator of how precisely fishermen want to refine their catches – is double the same period last year,” the report noted.

Initial information indicates that many fishermen have been trawling in shallower waters, even though by doing so they may be more likely to encounter non-target species (bycatch) fishermen try to avoid. NOAA’s fishery managers say such shallow-water fishing suggests that the option fishermen have to trade quota-pounds of bycatch, and confidence in their own ability to avoid unwanted species, allows them to pursue target fish in more areas than during the first year of the program.

Managers also noted an uptick in activity in risk pools: several fishermen pool their bycatch quota pounds so that rare overages by one or a few members of the pool are covered by the group’s pooled resources. Overall, the report indicates bycatch rates are “down substantially from pre-catch-shares years.”

Neither risk pools nor quota-pound transfers and trades were options under the old system.

Some indications of increased diversity of landings and revenue distribution among fish species have also emerged, according to NOAA. While these signs of diversification likely reflect changes in prices of some species, NOAA leaders say they might also reflect fishermen’s intentional diversification of their catch “portfolios” – the fish they’re entitled to – as they explore new areas and seek new markets.

Information, Please

Frequency and amount of catch data available to managers and fishermen jumped dramatically in 2011.

Daily catch updates are tracked under the new online system that operates in near real-time, allowing fishermen to manage their catch and quota pounds efficiently. Managers can monitor landings and discard both target and bycatch species. The system combines landings data with observer estimates of discards.

The West Coast Groundfish Observer Program logged 9,305 sea days in eight fisheries in 2011 – about 4,000 sea days more than in 2010.

“Observers recorded haul information, determined the official total catch, sampled hauls for species composition, collected length and age structure data, completed projects related to salmon, and recorded marine mammal and seabird sighting and interaction data,” NOAA managers say.

In addition to supporting fisheries management, the data are used for fish stock and protected species population assessments.

The new compliance monitor program managed by the PFMC places observers or catch monitors in processing plants, where they verify the accuracy of fish tickets for catch share offloads. The monitors logged 2,500 days.

“Almost all of the catch monitors are observers who follow the fish off the boat and into the plant,” the report noted.

NOAA leaders say the economic dynamics of the fishery will evolve under catch share management. To monitor these changes, the catch share program features mandatory economic data collection. PFMC and NOAA Fisheries will use that information to evaluate whether the the catch share program is meeting its objectives.

“Changes from the catch share program will also impact the people working in the fishery, including fishermen, crew members, processors, and equipment suppliers,” the NOAA report stated.

Scientists from the Northwest Fisheries Science Center will collect information through voluntary social surveys and interviews with fishing industry members, attempting to understand individuals and fishing communities, and their level of involvement in the West Coast catch share fishery and other fisheries. This, said NOAA officials, would “provide a deeper understanding of the human dimension of the fishery.”

NOAA leaders anticipate “ongoing improvements” to the catch share program, including cost reductions and “management efficiencies.” They want to improve online catch, quota share-holder and vessel accounting systems used to manage the program, and continue to support partnerships with the fishing industry to keep bycatch low while boosting target catch.

One key area for testing and development in 2012 is electronic monitoring. Electronic monitoring has the potential to reduce observer costs while simultaneously maintaining compliance and delivering necessary data for the West Coast Groundfish Catch Share Program.

Not everyone is convinced about catch shares just yet, but some have changed their perspective.

Coos Bay-based trawler Rex Leach said he had “some pretty big reservations” about catch shares, but after the first year, he’s “happy to say I was wrong.” Discards are nearly non-existent and he can now plan groundfish landings when it’s convenient for his operation.

Time will tell whether the effort converts others. Then again, as several fishermen pointed out: “What choice do we have?”