The Pacific Coast is home to more than 50 species of rockfish, including Pacific snapper. Rockfish and other groundfish were once plentiful, but years of commercial fishing have depleted stocks. In some cases there has been an 80 to 90 percent loss. Rod Fujita, ocean scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund, says fishermen aren’t to blame. Market demand buoyed by incentives and subsidies drove a race to catch fish.
“The conservation ethic on land started decades ago,” says Fujita, “but until recently, the frontier mentality still applied to our seas.”
In November 2008, the Pacific Fisheries Management Council approved a new Individual Fishing Quota system for the West Coast groundfish trawl fleet, a catch share program designed to make the fishery more sustainable. “Think of it as a cap and trade for fish,” says Katherine Burnham, spokesperson for EDF. The “cap” is set by scientists and reflects the amount of fish that can be sustainably harvested. Once the program is approved by the U.S. commerce secretary, fishermen will each be guaranteed an allowable catch based on boat size and fishing history. If they choose, they can “trade” or sell their quota. Learn more at www.edf.org.
Rockfish and groundfish live with thousands of other creatures in a biologically diverse mosaic, swimming through kelp forests and around offshore islands; navigating around cold-water coral and sea sponges; and gliding over sandy bottoms and rocky hills and slopes.
“No single tool can handle the whole job of restoring healthy oceans,” says Natural Resources Defense Council‘s Karen Garrison. She says catch share programs can sustain fish populations if quotas are based on the best science and if there is an observer on every fishing boat. “Other tools, like marine protected areas, protect ecosystems and habitat much the way a national park does,” she says. “Together, these two tools are more effective at improving ocean health than either is alone.”
The California Fish and Game Commission will vote in May on a plan to protect 155 square miles of state waters along the north-central coast by designating 22 areas with varying levels of protection. The state Department of Fish and Game will take comments until mid-May. For information and meeting dates, go to caloceans.org.