Tommy Ancona, 58, has been a part of the fishing industry since he was a kid.
“I started fishing with my dad,” he said. “I fished when I didn’t want to fish. I fished when I wanted to ride my bike.”
His father and grandfather were both fishermen, and he makes his living the same way — catching groundfish, crab and shrimp from his base in Fort Bragg, California.
But a West Coast fishing industry buildup over the decades has taken its toll.
Last year the Pacific Fishery Management Council (PFMC) voted to ban most bottom fishing on the continental shelf from Canada to Mexico to prevent the collapse of stocks of some types of groundfish, a generic term for 83 different species of fish.
“We implemented a lot of strict management regulations in the last year,” said PFMC spokeswoman Jennifer Gilden, and while those regulations will help fish stocks recover, “people have had a hard time making ends meet.”
According to the Fishermen’s Marketing Association, the groundfish industry’s annual haul has plummeted from about $110 million in 1987 to an estimated $35 million today.
That’s why Ancona and many other small, family-owned fishing operations are thinking about getting out of the business and selling their boats, as a part of a voluntary fishing-license buyback program administered by National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS).
“Faulty exploitation advice”
The buyback aims to cut the 263-vessel West Coast groundfish fleet by one-half, and comes at a time of crisis for oceans worldwide.
A recent study by the Pew Oceans Commission found that overfishing, pollution and development threaten both oceanic ecosystems and the humans who depend on them.
And the New York Times reported on July 31 that “more than 70 percent of commercial fish stocks are now considered fully exploited, overfished or collapsed.”
“People in the fishing industry recognize the existing fleet is too large,” said Peter Leipzig, executive director of the Fishermen’s Marketing Association, and a driving force behind the West Coast buyback. “The fleet was built up in the late ’70s early ’80s. The large fleet allowed us to harvest fish the government said was underutilized and by the late ’80s, they were telling us it was overfished.”
Gilden blames a “lack of scientific knowledge” for the management decisions that created today’s problem.
“It’s really hard to count all the fish in the sea,” she said, and noted that in the past “there was a tendency to hope there were more” fish than turned out to be the case.
Chris Dorsett, Pacific fish conservation manager with the environmental group the Ocean Conservancy, agrees.
“[Fishermen] were given faulty exploitation advice,” he said.
But he says today’s problems are not just due to inaccurate science.
“There were naysayers even back then,” he said, “people in the fisheries service who were very concerned.”
To make matters worse, said Dorsett, both industry and regulators overlooked the fact that many fishing operations hauled in more fish than were brought to shore.
That “bycatch” of commercially unviable fish took its toll on the ecosystem, he said.
“They knew there was significant bycatch,” he said. “The number of fish actually killed exceeded the number of fish permitted to be killed.”
Leipzeig disputes this, stating that the fishing industry has “always accounted for total mortality,” and that day-to-day fishing quotas are even reduced according to bycatch estimates.
Under the new buyback program, West Coast fishermen operating groundfish trawlers who want to get out of the business have until August 29 to submit bids estimating the price of their fishing business.
Licensed commercial fishermen will then vote on whether to authorize the buyback.
If the vote succeeds, anyone whose bid has been accepted will be paid, surrender their fishing licenses, and their boats will be permanently removed from commercial fishing operations.
“The amount of fish has been reduced,” Leipzeig noted. “It’s much more economically viable if [fewer] people can catch more fish.”
Under the program the government will loan up to $46 million for the buyback.
Anyone who stays in the groundfishing business will pay up to five percent of their annual earnings to the NMFS until $36 million of that funding is paid back.
Shawn Barry, the program leader of the fisheries finance program for the NMFS, says the program is unique because it gives fishermen an economic incentive to get out of fishing.
But he cautions that the buyback won’t immediately restore fish stocks.
“It’s going to take a while because these fish don’t regenerate very quickly,” he said. “It’s just a fishery management tool, it is not a final answer.”
Business and community
With whole communities dependent on fishing, the industry’s changes have been painful.
According to Tommy Ancona, that’s just “an inevitability of doing business,” and whether fishing is a way of life shouldn’t be an issue.
“Anything you do is a lifestyle, driving a truck, flying an airplane … there’s successful crop dusters and those who can’t make a dime,” he said. “[F]ishing is no different from any other business.”
The industry is overcapitalized, he said, and the buyback program is a solution.
The buyback program has “a lot of dissenters,” but Ancona insists that “they don’t understand it … [I]t’s not an attack, it’s a business proposition.”
Gilden said that more can be done for fishing communities by both the government and the communities themselves.
“A huge amount of money goes into the biological sciences,” she said, “but not much goes into the social sciences [to study] the effects of these decisions on people in communities.”
There is disaster relief assistance available, she said, and money for job retraining, “buybacks definitely help … [but] the fishing community is not a unified voice …. Perhaps if they were more unified in voicing their concerns, they would have more clout.”
ON THE WEB
Pacific Fishery Management Council: http://www.pcouncil.org/
Ocean Conservancy: http://www.oceanconservancy.org/
Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations: http://www.pcffa.org/
National Marine Fisheries Service: http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/
Fishermen’s Marketing Association: http://www.trawl.org/