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Trawlers' Future Weighed

Fishing: U.S. officials study extended limits, possibly affecting hundreds of boats.


CRESCENT CITY, Calif. — When Richard Young looks out over the harbor, he sees too many fishing boats. One of them, an 80-foot wood-hulled trawler, is his.

"Too many fishermen chasing too few fish," said Young, a burly second-generation trawler captain who also has a doctorate in resource economics. "The question is: What do we do about it?"

The answer will come soon enough.

Faced with rapidly declining ground fish populations that triggered emergency action this summer, federal officials meeting in Portland, Ore., this week are expected to recommend extending severe limits on commercial fishing quotas along the Pacific continental shelf. The new restrictions could last for years. The continental shelf is home to 83 types of bottom-dwelling ground fish, including the dwindling varieties of bocaccio rockfish usually sold in markets as snapper.

September and October are normally peak fishing months on the West Coast. But except for a few fishermen selling deep-water albacore filets from the decks of their moored boats, activity in this compact seaport is already near a standstill. Several boats, grounded by federal action this summer to protect species of rockfish, were in dry dock. Trawler nets were stretched on the asphalt parking lot to be repaired. Two former fish processing plants stood closed and shuttered.

"Fishing is going to be very much smaller and around the edges of the shelf," said Burr Henneman, a San Francisco-based consultant for the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. "The scary thing is that these restraints are likely to go on for the rest of my life and for the rest of my grandchild's life."

The fishing restrictions, which began with a temporary ban on continental shelf fishing in Southern California on July 1, are expected to eventually shrink the 500-boat West Coast federally licensed fishing fleet to half its current size. The impact could be greatest in California, however, where 1,500 more boats, licensed by the state, will be subject to the same fishing restrictions.

Federal studies show that commercial trawlers could meet existing federal fish catch quotas with about one-third the number of boats currently in the fleet. But the quotas would fall harder on the state-licensed fleet, according to a Pacific Fisheries Management Council report.

It concluded that the state-licensed boats could catch their entire limit but only if the fleet is reduced to about 10% of its current size.

The study was conducted two years ago when fishing quotas were higher. "New scientific information suggests that the situation is even more dire now," said Mark Powell, director of fish conservation for the Ocean Conservancy, a Washington-based environmental group.

The question facing policymakers from Washington to this northernmost California port town is how to soften the blow for an industry that is already struggling.

"The fish need a break and the fishermen need help making the transition to more selective gear and smaller fleets," said Karen Garrison, co-director of the Ocean Protection Initiative for the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group. "You can't have a fishery without fish or fishermen."

Young, 55, square-built with a sun-bleached walrus mustache, favors a federal buyback program that would allow fishermen to retire their boats at a fair price.

This approach would avoid the painful death-by-attrition decline of a fishing industry left to founder on its own. "We can shrink and save the industry," said Young, 55, who was interviewed in the galley of his trawler, the City of Eureka. "I just think we should shrink it in a humane manner."

However, a Pacific fisheries buyback bill co-sponsored by Oregon Sens. Ron Wyden, a Democrat, and Gordon Smith, a Republican, met heavy resistance in Congress when it came up this spring.

A nearly identical bill in the House, sponsored by Santa Barbara Democratic Rep. Lois Capps also went nowhere.

Facing budget restraints, many members of Congress were reluctant to approve more subsidies.

"We really need federal leadership on this," said Kate Wing, an ocean policy analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group that supported the Wyden bill.

"We are spending billions of dollars bailing out the airline industry and we can't spare a few dollars for these people who were told by their own government that there would always be fish? It doesn't make sense."

Wyden's original bill called for a fund of $50 million--half of it in a federal loan to fishermen in the reduced fleet to buy boats and fishing permits from those fishermen wanting to sell.

But when that proposal stalled, the fishermen said they could finance the buyback with just the $50-million loan.

Wyden won approval for a $500,000 appropriation to secure the loan and has not given up on getting more help for the fishermen.

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