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The Nation | COLUMN ONE

Fishermen Caught in Sea Change

Facing an uncertain future and a federal buyout program to shrink the devastated West Coast fleet, many are 'scared to death.'

October 15, 2003|Tomas Alex Tizon | Times Staff Writer

COOS BAY, Ore. — It's the middle of the night, and Scotty Hockema's eyes are wide open. He blinks, sits up in bed, reaches for a small spiral notebook and scribbles:

Open a motorcycle shop.

Where did that come from? he wonders. The mind works in mysterious ways when angst-ridden. On another night, he writes: Operate heavy machinery. The entry becomes part of a free-ranging list: Buy rental properties. Run a whale-watching service. Develop land.

He fills a notebook, then another. Soon dozens of notebooks litter his house, dog-eared and marked up, the scattered thoughts of a 37-year-old man trying to figure out what to do for the rest of his life.

Hockema is a commercial ground fisherman. He's done nothing else since he was a child. But biologists say groundfish -- species that feed at or near the ocean bottom -- are in rapid decline, and now the federal government, in an attempt to shrink a devastated West Coast ground-fishing fleet, is offering to buy out many fishermen's permits and boats.

In exchange, Hockema and other fishermen who take part in the buyout program would agree to give up fishing.

A reduction in the fleet, the idea goes, might prolong the livelihoods of fishermen who continue on -- fewer fishermen means less competition -- but for many of those who've chosen to opt out, the future looms as a great unknown.

"We're scared to death," says Hockema one drizzly morning in the wheelhouse of his boat, the 75-foot Pacific Raider.

The boat, painted jet black with red letters, is moored in the Charleston marina a few miles east of the town of Coos Bay. It rocks gently in the water, side by side with other trawlers, their outriggers splayed like giant antennas.

There are about 260 ground-fishing permit holders who operate roughly the equivalent number of trawlers on the coasts of Washington, Oregon and California. Trawlers drag massive nets along the ocean bottom, scooping up species such as the colorful rockfish, served in restaurants as Pacific red snapper.

The buyout program works like a reverse auction, with the fishermen submitting bids to the National Marine Fisheries Service for how much they want the government to pay for their boats and permits. The agency aims to pay each fisherman the value of his boat plus one year's earnings based on a three-year average. Bids that come closest to the government's estimates of value have the best chance.

The agency received 108 bids (including one from Hockema) and accepted 92 of them, but it won't announce the winning bids until after the buyout plan is approved by a majority of West Coast ground fishermen, including trawlers, crabbers and shrimpers. The fishermen will vote today, and the result will be announced Nov. 12.

Under the plan, $10 million in grant money plus $36 million from a government-backed loan would be used to buy out the trawlers whose bids are accepted. The $36-million loan would then be repaid by those who continue fishing and would theoretically benefit from reduced competition.

The buyout would retire more than a third of the trawler fleet, marking another milestone in the decline of the U.S. fishing industry. Lawmakers from California, Oregon and Washington lobbied for the program, arguing that the federal government bore some responsibility for the fishermen's plight.

In the 1970s, the government promoted fishing by offering incentives for fishermen to buy bigger and better boats. The result was too many boats chasing too few fish. The government since 1995 has spent $140 million in similar buyouts of other fisheries in Alaska, New England and the Pacific Northwest.

Hockema says his decision to call it quits is as difficult as any he's ever made. He and his wife went back and forth for weeks, right up until the Aug. 30 deadline, to submit bids. They had to Fed-Ex theirs to get it in on time.

It came down to a few simple facts: Regulators have closed off 75% of the fishing grounds. The price of fish is nearly the same as 25 years ago while the costs of fuel and ice, equipment and maintenance all keep going up. Though supermarket prices for fish continue to increase, most of the profit goes to processors and distributors.

"There's no money in it, there's no future in it," Hockema says, "and everybody's against us."

Biologists say canary rockfish may soon be wiped out because of overfishing. Lingcod and ocean perch and bocaccio and five other groundfish species may follow, headed the way of the dodo and the dinosaur if rates of decline continue.

"Make sure to put 'fisherman' on the list," Hockema says. "We're endangered. We're going extinct. We're like the loggers, the farmers. We're vanishing just like them."


Seawater in His Veins

There's no self-pity in his voice. Hockema speaks in terse sentences that don't fluctuate in tone. He says "I'm just sick to death about this" with the same monotone he uses to say: "They're supposed to be here at 8." He says he doesn't want to elicit sympathy.

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