For four generations, Geoff Bettencourt's family has fished the waters off Half Moon Bay by dragging heavy nets across the ocean floor to scoop up the sole and cod that feed there.
But the 35-year-old may soon sell his right to trawl the sea — not to another fisherman, but to environmentalists.
The Nature Conservancy, an international environmental group best known for buying development rights from farmers, is looking to strike similar deals with fishermen along the coast in a pilot program that it said could be repeated elsewhere.
The group has bought six federal trawling permits and four trawling vessels from fishermen in Morro Bay, about halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco. The tactic is designed to reward fishermen for forgoing fishing methods that can damage sensitive marine ecosystems.
Financial details weren't disclosed, but each fisherman received "several hundred thousand dollars a piece," said Chuck Cook, director of the group's California coastal and marine program. Rather than punishing fishermen, Cook said, "you try to provide economic incentives for treating the habitats and fisheries well."
The Conservancy said its acquisitions represent the nation's first private buy-out of Pacific fishing vessels and permits for conservation purposes. The buy-outs are also part of its new, cooperative approach to protecting the ocean. Fishermen saw some past campaigns as financial burdens.
So far, the offer has been well-received, according to Bettencourt. "They didn't come in saying they hate fishermen," he said.
Regulators on the West Coast do not issue any of the permits and are working to decrease their number, said Brian Gorman, a spokesman for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the agency that monitors U.S. fisheries. Fishermen can only acquire permits by buying from another fisherman.
Damage from bottom trawling
Bottom trawlers draw large, weighted nets across the sea bed to collect groundfish. Prized California species include seafood staples like black cod, flounder, and Dover sole.
The practice can damage sensitive habitats by crushing and burying large swaths of coral, rocky reefs, and other habitat vital to undersea life, according to a 2002 National Academy of Sciences study.
Trawl nets also can kill large volumes of fish the fisherman were not intending to catch. A typical three-day trawler trip can yield 50 thousand pounds of fish. Thousands more pounds of unwanted fish and other sea life caught in trawler nets also get thrown overboard before the boats return to shore.
Federal fishery managers have banned bottom trawling on nearly 4 million acres of ocean off California's Central Coast under an agreement between environmentalists and fishermen.
Federal regulators have declared eight species of West Coast groundfish as overfished. The areas protected as part of the deal include vast undersea canyons near Monterey Bay, Big Sur, and Point Conception.
Morro Bay fishermen have trawled the Pacific since at least the 1950s, but the industry there has fallen on hard times. The high cost of coastal real estate and a shrinking fleet have forced seafood processors and other port businesses to leave, while fishermen say higher shipping costs have eaten into their profits.
Some fishermen blame heavy environmental regulations for making their jobs harder, said Jeremiah O'Brien, president of the Morro Bay Commercial Fishermen's Organization. But the new deal gives fishermen another shot at success and allows them to pursue more profitable, less destructive fishing, he said.
Alternative fishing possible
Some plan to continue groundfishing using more sustainable methods like baited traps or hook-and-line, which could help their fish command better prices among eco-sensitive consumers, according to Pietro Parravano, president of the Institute for Fisheries Resources in San Francisco.
Fishermen who sold permits to the Conservancy have agreed not to re-enter trawl fisheries, according to the group. The Conservancy plans to retool some Morro Bay trawlers for use in ocean research, clean-up, or law enforcement. Older vessels too worn for repair could end up as scrap.
The acquired permits are to remain shelved for now. But the Conservancy may lease them back to fishermen on the condition they use techniques other than bottom trawling to catch fish. The group is negotiating buyout agreements with fishermen in Monterey Bay and Half Moon Bay.
Giuseppe Pennisi, 67, has fished the waters near Monterey Bay for 51 years. Five of his six sons still fish; one was lost at sea. Pennisi is holding onto his trawling permit for now.
"We're a fishing family," he said. "For us to do something drastic, it has to be a good business proposition."