Oakland meeting about fishery closure

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Oakland meeting set on closures of groundfish trawling
By Jeff Barnard
Associated Press

, Associated Press STEVE FITZ left New England when the cod fishery there began to crash, went to Scotland to learn a new environmentally friendly way of fishing and took it to the West Coast, where he developed a niche market selling sand dabs to Asian restaurants and markets.
Now Fitz is on the beach, put out of work by a federal fisheries management system that has failed to prevent in the Pacific the same kind of collapse he left behind in the Atlantic.

"Literally, three or four weeks ago, we were humming along, everything was fine, mortgages were being paid," Fitz said from his home in Half Moon Bay. "Now I'm just collateral damage."

After two decades of slowly tightening the screws on the groundfish fishery, the Pacific Fishery Management Council has imposed emergency closures on trawling on the Continental Shelf to protect overfished stocks of rockfish, a staple of party fishing boats and fish markets.

By closing an area, rather than clamping down even more on harvest, the council took its first step into a new world of fisheries management that is shaping up around the country.

In coming years, West Coast fishermen may well be dealing with federal reserves where fishing is prohibited, transmitters on boats to alert authorities when they enter no-fishing zones, and tamperproof video cameras to monitor what kinds of fish are being hauled on deck and dumped overboard.

"It's certainly a new era," said Pete Leipzig of the Fishermen's Marketing Association, which represents 135 of the 270 trawlers in the Pacific groundfish fishery. "Most fishermen who talked about these types of things a few years ago conjured up images of Big Brother. Given the choices now of fishing or not fishing, people seemingly want to embrace Big Brother."

Two things happened:

- Lawsuits by environmentalists forced the National Marine Fisheries Service to get serious about a long-standing problem known as bicatch. That's where fish other than the target species get dumped overboard dead because they can't be landed without violating harvest limits.

- New studies by NMFS showed four species of rockfish -- bocaccio, yellow-eye, canary and dark blotched -- were worse off than feared, and could take nearly a century to rebuild to fishable levels.

Though many fishermen distrust the science, the Pacific Fishery Management Council, which sets ocean harvests and seasons, had no choice but to take drastic steps. It shut off most trawling for groundfish on the Continental Shelf south of Northern California's Cape Mendocino as of July 1. More restrictions crowding sport and commercial boats into shallow waters near shore and deeper seas outside the shelf are possible when the council sets 2003 seasons in September.

The council is holding three hearings throughout the state this summer to get public comment before the September meeting. The only Bay Area meeting will be held in Oakland on Wednesday, from 7 to 10 p.m., in the Elihu Harris State Office Building, 1515 Clay St.

Protective measures will likely go beyond groundfish, because the overfished species of rockfish swim with other commercial species -- halibut, salmon, shrimp and squid.

"There aren't really any heroes and there aren't really any villains," said Richard Young, a Crescent City commercial fisherman who also holds a doctorate in economics and has served on panels advising the management council.

"People are pulling in different directions. We have also, frankly, had some bad luck from Mother Nature and bad advice from science. We ended up in many cases with overwhelming problems. We need to find a way out."

That won't be easy.

The basic law of the sea is the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, enacted in 1976 to boot foreign factory trawlers outside a 200-mile limit.

With help from cheap federal loans, the fishing industry expanded fleets to fill the gap left by foreign boats. Now, too many boats chase too few fish, with trawlers pitted against longliners and jig fishermen. Reducing the catch means putting people out of business.

Karen Garrison, senior policy analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the conventional fishery management focus on one species at a time has failed, and the management council has been slow to change.

"The public owns the oceans, but that original Magnuson-Stevens Act put fishing industry-dominated councils in charge of fisheries," she said.

In a turf war between fleets in Alaska and Seattle, Congress also barred the management council from adopting a tool known as individual transferable quotas, which assign boats a fixed share of the harvest quota.

The act is up for reauthorization this year, and there are signs of change. One House version would ease the overfishing restrictions, with an amendment allowing ITQs. In the Senate, a measure helping fishermen buy out and retire half the groundfish fleet has been introduced.

Andy Rosenberg was New England regional administrator and deputy director of NMFS when the groundfish fishery was cut there in the 1990s.

"The scientific advice was you have a chance to actually get fishing pressure under control without taking a big reduction in harvest if you take the reduction now, while you have good reproduction coming into the system," said Rosenberg, now dean of agriculture and life sciences at the University of New Hampshire.

"That was roundly dismissed by the industry. A few years later, because that opportunity was thrown away, the principal stocks collapsed -- flounder, haddock and cod."

Fisheries managers closed vast areas of the Atlantic and imposed tight harvest limits. Fishermen went broke.

Now, flounder, haddock and scallops are producing good catches again, though cod have been slow to rebound. It's a hard lesson to learn, said Rosenberg, because it means denying the livelihoods of people who have few alternatives to make such good money.

The West Coast faces an even tougher future, because the overfished rockfish live much longer and reproduce more sporadically than the East Coast species, making the return to abundance slower and more uncertain, Rosenberg said.

For more information, go to the Pacific Fishery Management Council's website at http://www.pcouncil.org
 
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