West Coast Groundfish Trawlers Net Eco-Certification
The Pacific Coast groundfish fishery is definitely back from the brink and charting another course change by becoming the latest fishery to earn the blue seal of approval under the eco-certification umbrella of the international Marine Stewardship Council (MSC). Representatives from the MSC, the fishery, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (OSFW) and the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) announced the accomplishment during a June 3 news conference in Portland, Oregon.
The designation from the world’s most widely-recognized certification organization covers 13 species of groundfish caught off the coasts of Oregon, California and Washington.
Participants in the certification process say this is “the most complex, multi-species fisheries ever certified” by MSC. Fishery managers and others say the key to earning the designation lies in the transition to a catch share (individual quota) program launched by NOAA Fisheries Service in 2011, more than a decade after the federal agency declared the fishery a disaster.
“The changes made under the catch share program got us over many of the hurdles on our way to gaining MSC certification, which is a game-changer for us,” said Brad Pettinger, executive director of the Oregon Trawl Commission. “Working with the Pacific Fishery Management Council and the National Marine Fisheries Service, we have renewed our social contract with America’s seafood consumers by demonstrating conclusively that we can manage and harvest these species in a sustainable fashion.”
An international non-profit organization, the MSC operates the world’s leading independent certification program for wild fisheries, bestowing its coveted blue eco-label on those fisheries it deems well-managed and sustainable, and using that label to educate consumers about those fisheries.
Focusing on three main principles – fish stock health, fishery management, and the fishery’s effects on the ecosystem – council certification involves an intense, four-year evaluation process. Independent assessments of the fishery measured against those principles ultimately led to the certification. The fishery must also undergo annual surveillance audits to maintain the certification.
Beginning in 2007, Oregon’s pink shrimp, Dungeness crab and albacore tuna fisheries have earned and maintained MSC certification.
“It’s a global market, and the MSC logo is an internationally-recognized symbol of good management and sustainability,” notes Wayne Heikkila, executive director of the California-based Western Fishboat Owners Association, a non-profit group representing about 400 albacore troll-vessel owners and supporting businesses in California, Oregon, Washington, Alaska, Hawaii, New Zealand, and British Columbia. He cites the certification as a vital marketing step, since many major retailers and restaurants now focus on purchasing only seafood products with the blue MSC label in response to rising consumer demand for eco-friendly fishing practices.
Fishery managers and fishermen agree that it hasn’t been easy navigating through the choppy waters of the quota program launched by the NOAA Fisheries Service in January 2011, and much remains to fully batten down the hatches as they continue to tinker with and tweak procedures. But NOAA officials now deem the long-debated and often-maligned system that weighed anchor amid waves of doubt and derision from many fishermen as “a big success,” noting that fishermen have incorporated this shift in fishing strategies into their fishing and marketing plans to optimize the system’s benefits as they have gained confidence in catch shares.
Calling the new system possibly “the biggest transformation in fish management since foreign fleets were restricted from American waters more than a generation ago,” NOAA reports have presented an optimistic view of a system gaining acceptance – sometimes grudgingly so – that agency leaders say should ultimately revolutionize the trawl fishery.
Managers and some fishermen say the system is a definite improvement for a fishery that not so long ago teetered on the brink of sinking into oblivion.
Too Many Vessels
Historically, management of the West Coast’s commercial fisheries was straightforward and conventional, with “plenty of fish in the sea.”
Scientists would determine the size of a fish stock and how many fish the commercial fishermen could sustainably catch each year. Fishery managers set an overall quota, and fishermen were allowed to catch fish as long as they didn’t exceed the quota. If they reached the quota, managers shut down the fishery for the remainder of the season. But as more fishermen entered the fishery and their fishing became more efficient, a combination of factors - among them overfishing, said fishery managers - led to the decline of many fish stocks, resulting in smaller annual quotas, shorter seasons and additional restrictions.
“With fewer fish available and smaller quotas, fishermen engaged in a dangerous and economically wasteful race for the fish, in which they competed with one another to harvest as many fish as possible before the season ended or the fishery was closed because a quota was reached,” NOAA officials noted.
At the outset of the 1990s, 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 floundered, along with the 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 said the fishery remained overcapitalized, and the search began for other ways to restore an industry 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 Pacific Fishery Management Council (PFMC) listed seven rockfish species as “overfished.”
Then the council made a decision to pursue something far more dramatic and controversial: individual fishing quotas, or IFQs.
Starting in 2006, 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 to establish an individual fishing quota system for the West Coast groundfish fishery.
While Alaska, British Columbia and other fisheries in the United States and elsewhere had adopted quota management systems, this was the first program ever proposed and eventually 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.
Managers say the combined West Coast groundfish fishery is worth as much as $40 million per year, and the quota system designed to stabilize it and make it safer and more efficient is working.
Commercial fishermen, fishery managers, EDF leaders and others worked together for several years to establish the catch share program.
“The MSC designation is a testimony to the environmental and economic benefits we can achieve by working together to solve major fisheries challenges,” said Shems Jud, deputy regional director for the Pacific region with EDF’s Oceans Program. “We’ve been doing that successfully here for almost 10 years and the result is a win-win for fish and fishermen. Rates of bycatch and discards have plummeted, while overfished species are rebuilding more rapidly than initially anticipated. At the same time, fishing businesses are able to fish more efficiently under the new management system.”
Geoff Bettencourt, a commercial fisherman from Half Moon Bay, California, said the options for consumers “for buying local and certifiably sustainable fish have just expanded dramatically.”
Fishery managers say Oregon, California and Washington fishermen landed more than 40 million pounds of groundfish in 2013. The certification covers 13 species - Dover sole, Ling cod, black cod (sablefish), Chilipepper rockfish, Petrale sole, English sole, Longspine thornyheads, Shortspine thornyheads, Splitnose rockfish, Widow rockfish, Yellowtail rockfish, Longnose Skates and Arrowtooth flounder.