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Friday, 25 October 2013

Fair trade fish? Creating consumer link may be key to survival of local trawlers

From across the pond comes this very pertinent article citing the advantages for all concerned when fishermen are allowed to micro-manage their fishing operations in partnership with a wider community and other 'stakeholders'.

Four Fort Bragg drag net fishermen, along with the Environmental Defense Fund, hope to create a "fair trade" fish, which would inform consumers about where, when, how and even who caught their fish.

The effort is envisioned as an outgrowth of their Fort Bragg Groundfishing Association's working with Central Coast fishermen to deal with the federal catch-share program, which has created an increasingly heavy load of regulations over the past decade. If such local efforts fail, critics fear corporate consolidation in the industry, which might kill off a historic Noyo Harbor industry.

"In recent years the government has been ramping up spending of taxpayer dollars on "catch share' programs. These programs divide up our nation's fishery resources for exclusive use by the biggest and fastest fishing operations and then allow corporations and banks to buy and sell these "shares' for profit," said Zach Corrigan of Food & Water Watch, as part of extensive public criticism when the program went into effect two years ago.

"Even worse than corporate consolidation for us would be for someone to buy up all the Noyo Harbor permits and move them to another port," said Michelle Norvell, executive director of the Fort Bragg Groundfishing Association. "We would then lose an industry that has become much more sustainable and eventually the infrastructure to support it."

The program literally gives each fishing boat a share of the allowed total catch, based on their historical fishing take and basically frozen in place at that point. Frank Lockhart of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said consolidation is a concern for NOAA. The Pacific Coast Fishery Management Council has forbade anyone from increasing their percent of the catch by consolidating with others in order to respond to critics, who remain skeptical.

What about keeping permits tied to harbors?

"That was an idea considered by the council and rejected," Lockhart said.
The reality check comes in 2015, when fishermen will be allowed to sell their percentage shares of the catch, which could result in a loss of local fishing and corporate consolidation of the industry if ways are not found for small boats to adapt to the new costs.

Costs are about to go way up.

Observer cost

Federal regulation of observer cost is also about to end along with federal subsidies paying for half the cost of observers. This creates a boom for the biologists who meet the criteria of being an observer. The cost of having the observer, now about $450 per day, is expected to rise with deregulation. On the East Coast, observers cost as much as $1,000 per day.

"This is a significant cost to the program," agrees Shems Jud of the Environmental Defense Fund, who came with local fishermen to meet with this newspaper and promote the new cooperative effort. Jud says fishermen have led efforts to bring the fishery back.

"The prior management system was atrocious, there was a ton of discard and a ton of waste, a lot of perfectly good fish had to be discarded," said Jud.

Jud said fishermen have now found markets for fish once thrown back.
"We went from about 25 percent discard down to 5 percent. There is a lot less waste and a lot more seafood left swimming the sea for future generations," said Jud.

Catch shares

Norvell said the change of trawl fishing regulation from short open season windows to catch shares that can be caught at any time could be much better for fish, fishermen and the environment in the long run.
"The way our fishermen had to fish in the past, they had a window to catch a certain amount of fish É. What that created was an environment of derby style fishing, where they raced out no matter what the weather was, often at greatly increased risk to themselves, and caught everything they could as fast as they could," Norvell said.

Norvell, whose father-in-law owns a trawler, got into the issue because she is a paralegal and fishermen were desperate for someone to help them navigate the labyrinth of new regulations. Her role has since gone beyond that, bringing Noyo Harbor fishermen together with others on the Central Coast through the Fort Bragg Groundfishing Association to work with environmental groups and find creative solutions.
The Noyo fishermen's willingness to be environmentally responsible allowed Norvell to hook-up with environmental and political figures. Norvell, fisherman Charles Price, and three men from the Environmental Defense Fund recently explained the still-unfolding effort.

"Michelle has certainly emerged as a leader in the fishery, not just in Fort Bragg, but coastwide," said Scott Coughlin, of the Environmental Defense Fund.

Fewer boats better for fish and fishermen

The 2001-2004 era crackdown on net trawling, along with federal buyout dollars, gave many a profitable way out of the business, now reducing Noyo Harbor's fleet down to about seven boats, with just two trawling full time. In the late 1970s there were 27 trawl boats permitted to work out of Noyo Harbor.

Price, skipper of the Donna J, says the 2003 era buyout of so many rival boats is what has saved and revived bottom fishing. Although Price and other trawlers part of the effort, Tom Estes (Terra Dawn), Brian Jourdain (Blue Pacific) and Vince Doyle (Verna Jean), have struggled with the new mountain of regulations, the fishing has gotten better.

All four boats work out of Noyo Harbor, the crews live in the community and all four boats were made locally.

"The last three years before this program went into effect were some of the best ever for me in terms of the quality of the fishing," said Price.

"All those boats were fishing on top of each other. We are basically fishing on a bluff out here. Go 16 miles out and you are in the abyss. The California coast is long but at this end it's so narrow and steep, there was just not enough room for that many boats to work out of Noyo Harbor," Price said.

Mistakes by Congress hurts fishermen

One pricetag for the better fishing is that Price and the other 176 trawl net permit holders in California, Oregon and Washington were required to pay back the federal government the $36 million spent on the 2003 era buyout. The money was used to buy fishing vessels and retire them.
While the buyout did benefit fishermen, the government failed to arrange for repayment for more than a year, during which time interest piled up. By the time the fishermen began repaying, interest had accumulated to the extent that more now is owed to the government than when the program began, explained Norvell, whose family owns Price's boat.

All six West Coast U.S. senators now back a fix to the fund that lowers interest and resets repayment. Congressmen Jared Huffman and Mike Thompson have introduced a similar measure into the House.

Bottom fish are coming back

Smarter trawling is slowly reversing the fate of overfished groundfish. There were originally seven groundfish that trawlers were restricted from catching. The widow rockfish has made a comeback thanks to improved and restricted fishing practices. Three of the remaining six are well on their way to recovery, Lockhart said.

Just two species, the yelloweye rockfish and the cowcod are expected to take a long time to recover.

The other species, halibut, is not threatened or overfished but trawlers are not allowed to keep the many halibut they catch, which are regulated under a special treaty with Canada. Lockhart said the fishermen have also improved survival rates on the halibut, which are all being thrown back by trawl fishermen.

The new rules surrounding the list of six restricted, overfished species are the main factor that drove fishermen into a local and regional risk pool. The risk pool among Fort Bragg and Central Coast fishermen works like an insurance policy that also could serve as a group effort to promote fresher, more sustainable fish marketing. The effort was modeled on another group effort in Washington.

"When the fishery transitioned in 2011 to the catch share program, the fishermen had to figure out how they were going to survive because of the small number of some fish received," said Norvell.

For example, local fishermen were all given zero allocation of the threatened yelloweye rockfish, Norvell said. Catch one and all trawl fishing stops for that fisherman for the season unless he or she could get an allocation from another area. Just 87 total pounds for the entire region were allowed before everyone would have had to stop fishing. However, very few yelloweye were caught.

Fishermen now stay out of the rockiest ocean areas where yelloweye lurk. Lockhart said the industry has done a remarkable job of dealing with an allocation of less than one yelloweye per boat.

Groups work to create sustainable fishermen

The Fort Bragg Groundfishing Association has developed strategic partnerships with The Nature Conservancy, Environmental Defense Fund, Point Arena's Joint Cable Fishery Liaison Committee and fishermen, and fishing associations in Pillar Point Harbor and Morro Bay.

The Point Arena's Joint Cable Fishery Liaison Committee has recently voiced strong support of the Fort Bragg Groundfishing Association's efforts and committed $20,000 to help fund a traceability pilot project.
Under Norvell's leadership, the association has also gotten a grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.

In part two in next week's issue, we will look at specific ways the environmental groups work with fishermen and how all this may change what consumers buy at the grocery story.

Story courtesy of FRANK HARTZELL / Staff Writer