The federal government is on the verge of closing most waters off the West Coast to many kinds of fishing for decades--and not a moment too soon. People are still sorting through the economic and social effects of the decision by the federal Pacific Fishery Management Council to suspend fishing for several kinds of rockfish off the Pacific Coast.
With stunning suddenness, the myth of ocean abundance has dissolved into the cold reality of scarcity. Where we once faced the challenge of building up fishing fleets, we now face the challenge of trimming them. If we do not succeed in reducing fleets to sizes that diminishing fish populations can support, we will surely face more closures and economic dislocation.
No one who depended on, managed, enjoyed or profited from these fisheries should be surprised. The signs were clear five years ago. Then, tighter and tighter fishing restrictions aimed at protecting declining rockfish populations reduced the economic value of the West Coast commercial fishery from $100 million in 1997 to $50 million in 1998.
In January 2000, the Commerce secretary declared the fishery a disaster, but Congress provided little relief. Two years ago, the Pacific Fishery Management Council called for halving the West Coast fleet that has fished for groundfish, which consumers purchase as red snapper.
What a shift. In the 1970s and 1980s, government agencies, investors and fishermen dreamed confidently of expanding fisheries, not just on the Pacific Coast but elsewhere off U.S. coasts and beyond.
Investment tax laws, government loan guarantees, the expulsion of foreign fishing fleets and wildly optimistic estimates of potential catches fed an enormous boom in fishing boat construction. More than half of the 30,500 vessels built between 1950 and 2000 were built from 1973 to 1984.
It was too much of a good thing. Soon, many fishermen found their grounds crowded and their catches declining. To make ends meet, some rushed to increase catches by using more gear and bigger vessels and by fishing longer.
This race for the fish magnified small problems, such as damage to sensitive habitats and the discard of fish that were too small or the wrong species to sell. Quite often, catches declined, sometimes precipitously.
Many fishermen began seeking better grounds.
From 1984 to 1990, more than 2,000 shrimp trawlers left the crowded shrimping grounds of the Gulf of Mexico. But they did not disappear. Rather, they simply moved to other fisheries. Fishermen elsewhere sometimes took advantage of "fire sale" vessel prices to gear up. In the end, hundreds of shrimp trawlers entered other fisheries, many of which already were suffering, or soon would be, from too many boats chasing too few fish. These patterns will repeat themselves on the West Coast unless dramatic steps are taken to reduce fleet size.
In several regions, the federal government has underwritten programs to buy and scuttle fishing vessels. In Alaska, the government and the industry financed the scuttling of nine large trawlers in the Alaska pollock fishery, to the relief of nearly everyone. Unfortunately, these are isolated examples and wholly inadequate.
The United States desperately needs a national effort to reduce fleets. Buyback programs should be designed carefully and are by no means a panacea. But whether vessel buyback programs or market-based approaches are the means, Washington must lead by investing in cutting fleets, just as it did in building them up.
Likewise, fishermen who have benefited from federal programs and will benefit from restored fisheries should contribute to readjusting the fleet size to meet more realistic expectations of the ocean's productivity by helping to finance the fleet reduction.
Fishing regulations to protect marine wildlife and habitats are no match for the overcapacity of our fleets and the economic obligation represented by the investment in vessels. Reducing fishing fleets is key to the economic health of our fisheries and to the ecological richness of our coastal waters.