Smart Management, Smart Fishermen: Strategies Shift as West Coast Fleet Gains Confidence under Catch Shares

Fall 2013

sorting fish on deck

Less than three years after its inauguration, a new fishery management system for West Coast trawl fishermen, called catch shares, is being hailed as a big success, surprising because even though it was supported by many of the fishermen themselves, there was initial uncertainty about its potential success.

Historically, management of the West Coast’s commercial fisheries was straightforward and conventional, because there were plenty of fish in the sea. Scientists determined the size of a fish stock and how many fish could sustainably be caught every year. Managers set a quota, and fishermen were allowed to catch those fish as long as they didn’t exceed the quota. If a quota was reached, the fishery was shut down for the remainder of the season.

But as more fishermen entered the fishery, and fishing itself became more efficient, overfishing occurred despite managers’ best efforts. This led to the decline of many fish stocks, and a spiral of perpetually smaller annual quotas, shorter seasons, and other 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.

The new catch shares system is arguably the biggest transformation in fish management since foreign fleets were restricted from American waters more than a generation ago. There are still quotas, because the size of the stocks and their sustainability are limited by biology. But the new system divides the quotas – in this case for Pacific whiting and a broad array of bottom-dwelling fish -- into shares assigned to individual fishermen or other entities, based on their fishing history. These fish can be caught anytime during the season that the fishermen want, eliminating the wasteful, expensive, and sometimes dangerous race for fish.

There are other catch-share management systems in place throughout the United States, some dating from the 1990s, but the new West Coast plan is the most geographically extensive and diverse in the nation. It includes scores of commercially valuable West Coast groundfish, like Pacific cod, sablefish, and petrale sole. Now, well into its third year, fishermen know better what to expect, are using tools of the new system to plan their fishing year more rationally, and are fishing smarter as they carry out those plans.

For example, the new system allows fishermen to trade their allotted pounds of fish among each other. A fisherman who has a small share of one particular species of fish, or who simply doesn’t want to harvest a particular species, can sell those so-called quota pounds to another fisherman or trade them for quota-pounds that he does want. The total pounds of such vessel-to-vessel transfers in 2012 was 25 percent above the inaugural year of 2011. The number of such transfers – a good indicator of how precisely fishermen want to refine their catches – was double the number in 2011.

Moreover, not only are fishermen profiting, but fish stocks themselves are benefiting. One of the most pernicious aspects of any race-for-the-fish system is the unintentional harvest of unwanted fish, known as bycatch. It is wasteful, because the unwanted fish are thrown overboard dead. In some cases, bycatch can also curtail a harvest. If a species is declared depleted and too many are accidentally caught, a fishery can be shut down even if abundant numbers of the target species remain. 

Under catch shares, West Coast fishermen have cut back dramatically on bycatch, in large measure because they now control a share of the fishery and are no longer in a race. They can afford to fish more deliberately, avoiding times or locations that may risk substantial bycatch. 

There is also increased participation in risk pools, agreements in which several fishermen pool their bycatch allowance so that rare overages by a few members of the pool are covered by the group’s pooled allotment. And they’re sharing knowledge among themselves to help each other avoid bycatch, something that would have been unthinkable a few years ago. The result:  no more waste; fishermen are keeping – and selling – virtually every fish they take from the sea.

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

Although the new system was supported by the fishing industry and endorsed by both the federal government and the Pacific Fisheries Management Council, which produces harvest management plans, West Coast trawl fishermen were understandably wary in the first year of the program. Their behavior – and their outlook – changed in 2012. Revenues are up, the fish-buying public is getting a better, more environmentally “green” product, and stocks that were considered overfished are slowly regaining biological stability. Not bad for a system that three years ago didn’t even exist.

Learn more about the West Coast Groundfish Catch Shares Program.

Home page photo credit: Sean Sullivan (used by permission). This page photo credit: NOAA.