New and innovative management practices revitalize West Coast fishery

Shems Jud

As smarter business practices take hold in America’s commercial fisheries, there is more evidence such efforts are paying off – big time.

Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program, the preeminent arbiter of sustainable seafood on which millions of Americans and many restaurants depend, said this week that nearly all fish caught in the West Coast groundfish fishery are now considered sustainable options for consumers.

We’re talking about sole and rockfish and nearly 40 other fish that exist near the bottom of the sea, in a fishery declared a federal disaster in 2000. All are now listed by Seafood Watch as a “Best Choice” or a “Good Alternative.”

Of course, all this didn’t happen by magic.

  • Over the last several years, trawlers have been experimenting with new gear, including a new kind of net that floats just above the ocean floor to protect habitat on which the fish depend.
  • Captains, mindful of the fact that their business depends on a healthy fishery, use advanced technology to track fish and warn other captains to stay out of areas with overfished species.
  • Many fishermen signed agreements to establish voluntary “no-take zones” to avoid depleted species.
  • Fishermen are exchanging information in real time about bycatch of sensitive species – fish they don’t intend to catch – to avoid overfishing.

The trick?

In 2011, fishery experts from Environmental Defense Fund and the federal government worked with the West Coast fishing industry to implement a so-called catch share program that directly benefits the fishermen while allowing overfished species to recover. An important component of the catch share program is that it requires that every fish caught be accounted for.

Under this system, fishermen have an economic incentive to avoid depleted species and minimize bycatch because their ability to keep fishing depends on it.

Indeed, in the first four years of the program, discards have dropped by roughly 80 percent and overfished species are rebuilding more quickly than anticipated. Revenues are starting to climb as well, and we hope this great news from the Seafood Watch Program will continue to grow markets for this healthy, sustainable product. 

So with commercial fisheries as with so many other industries, what’s good for business is also good for the environment – and vice versa.