IMAGE: GROUNDFISH TRAWLERS
Jeff Barnard  /  AP file
Groundfish trawlers like these in Crescent City, Calif., operate along the West Coast.
updated 11/5/2008 4:58:04 PM ET 2008-11-05T21:58:04

West Coast fishermen who have struggled for decades with low prices and dwindling stocks are getting closer to seeing a new management system that will give them each their own share of the catch, rather than having to race each other to catch fish.

One major detail remains to be settled: Fish processors want their own share of the catch, so they don't have to depend entirely on independent fishermen.

The Pacific Fishery Management Council is scheduled to vote Friday in San Diego on the final environmental impact statement creating a system of individual fishery quotas for the West Coast groundfish fishery.

Groundfish are 82 species, caught mostly by trawlers hauling nets along the ocean bottom, that are sold in U.S. fish markets as sole, flounder, lingcod, snapper, and imitation crab.

The system is expected to go into effect by 2011, after some details get ironed out and federal agencies approve it.

Individual fishery quotas allow fishermen to fish when they please for their own specified share of the overall catch, creating market forces to improve conservation and make the fleet more economically efficient.

Fisheries in New Zealand, Australia, Alaska, and British Columbia have adopted similar systems, and they are being contemplated around the U.S.

"Certainly within the scientific community it has been generally accepted for 10 to 15 years that we need to move that way," said Ray Hilborn, professor of fisheries at the University of Washington. "I think it's going to happen and pretty rapidly over the next 10 years."

Fishermen have teamed up with conservation groups and coastal communities, pressing the council to drop a draft provision adopted earlier this year that would give a 20 percent share of quotas to 30 processors, whether they already own their own fishing boats or not, and feel the tide is turning their way.

"All the money is being made in the processing and distribution side of the business, so this just strengthens the very few large companies further," said Pete Leipzig, executive director of the Fishermen's Marketing Association, which represents the groundfish fleet. "Fishermen would suffer and be desperate to do whatever they need to. Usually that means you sell it even cheaper."

Leipzig said his organization has had discussions "with a lot of members of the council."

"They indicated they either changed their mind and would vote against it or they voted in favor only to get it out of the way because it was only a preliminary vote," he said.

Rod Moore, a member of the council as well as director of the West Coast Seafood Processors Association, said he wasn't sure how the council would vote, but he was concerned that leaving processors out of the quotas would put smaller ones out of business as fewer boats land fish in fewer ports.

Valued at $51 million last year, the groundfish fishery has struggled for years. Overfishing of some rockfish species, sold as snapper, forced closures that cut revenues nearly in half, and a fishery disaster was declared in 2000. The federal government bought boats to cut the fleet in half in 2003,

An analysis for the council estimates the value of the fishing permits will rise to as much as $200 million as they are bought and sold, while the 120-boat fleet will contract to 50 to 70 boats as some fishermen decide they can't make enough money on their share and sell out.

Besides owning a share of the overall quotas, fishermen would be able to trade quotas instantly to cover times when they take more than their share, allowing them to keep fishing rather than dump unwanted fish overboard. Fisheries observers would be mandatory on every boat, paid for by the fishermen, to be sure limits are not exceeded.

The new system represents a victory for conservation groups, which have switched strategy from suing over failures in fisheries management to promoting systems that give fishermen an economic interest to conserve the resource, said Hilborn.

"This will be the first multispecies fishery to go to an (individual fishery quota) program in the country," said Johanna Thomas of Environmental Defense Fund. "It's probably one of the most complex programs in the country."

Environmental Defense Fund wants to be sure as more fisheries around the country move to this system, they won't include processor shares, she added.

The group has been paying expenses for coastal officials opposing quotas for processors to travel to San Diego to testify, drawing accusations from processors that they have violated Oregon ethics laws. Thomas said the law allows such payments for officials to speak.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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