EDF Offers Ways To Restore Nearly Collapsed West Coast Groundfish Fishery

December 31, 1997

The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) will dramatically reduce the allowable catch from the west coast groundfish fishery, the most valuable fishery on the west coast, effective January 1. The Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) offered recommendations for rebuilding this fishery.

EDF marine ecologist Dr. Rod Fujita criticized the Pacific Fishery Management Council and NMFS for allowing unsustainably high catches based on poor information. "Some members of the fishing industry have cried foul because the proposed cuts are based on poor information. But the Council, NMFS, and the fishing industry brought the present crisis upon themselves, by leaping before looking. Heavy exploitation of many groundfish populations was allowed, on the basis of poor information about how these populations would respond."

Groundfish were "fished down" over the last 20 years on the theory that the thinned populations would become more productive. Catch levels were set on the basis of estimated levels of fish abundance (gleaned from infrequent and patchy surveys, and from catch records). Fishermen were allowed to catch the estimated "surplus" portion of the population in a given year (relative to the theoretical maximum sustainable yield level).

It now appears that these catch levels were too high for some species like rockfish, that are slow to mature and live an extraordinarily long time (over 100 years in some cases), sablefish, and dover sole. Reduced ocean productivity over the last several decades may have contributed to the decline of the groundfish, but heavy fishing pressure was mostly to blame. Recent studies indicate that actual catch rates were probably greater than even the excessively high rates that fishery managers were aiming for, due to poor estimates of fish abundance.

Some fishing industry representatives argue that fishermen should be allowed to continue catching lots of fish in order to prevent an economic collapse, because the severity of the decline in groundfish is uncertain. But this is the same reasoning that lead to the present crisis, and to the collapse of the New England groundfish fishery, as well as to the collapse of many fisheries around the world. Common sense would dictate a change in course.

The solution is to cut allowable catch rates to levels that would be expected to halt the alarming decline in groundfish, and start to rebuild the fishery. Restrictions should be eased if justified by new information. The economic pain of the cuts should be alleviated through an industry- financed vessel buyout (the capacity of existing vessels to catch fish is several times that needed to efficiently harvest the available fish). Measures such as Individual Transferable Quotas for fish harvest privileges (in which the allowable catch is divided into transferable shares for eligible fishermen) that allow fishermen to match their investments to the resource, rather than engaging in a fierce competition to catch as many fish as possible, should be instituted. A network of no-take marine reserves, in which fishing would be banned, should be established as an insurance policy against the massive management failure that almost shut down the groundfish fishery. "Marine reserves protect real fish, not theoretical fish that are 'created' by inadequate surveys and poor information. Moreover, marine reserves protect other species and the complex ecological relationships that sustain life in the sea," said Fujita.

The Environmental Defense Fund, a leading, national, NY-based nonprofit organization, represents 300,000 members. EDF links science, economics, and law to create innovative, economically viable solutions to today's environmental problems.