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California Sea Grant study examines year-old NOAA West Coast catch shares program
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California Sea Grant study examines year-old NOAA West Coast catch shares program

News release from NOAA's California Sea Grant Program 

Contact: Christina S. Johnson/California Sea Grant,, 858-822-5334

SANTA BARBARA – In early 2011, the West Coast groundfish trawl fleet transitioned to a new fisheries management system called "catch shares" that guarantees fishery participants a percentage of the total allowable catch for each species in the fishery.

The program, though not universally embraced by fishing interests, was painstakingly crafted by managers and stakeholders, including the fishing industry, over a more than six-year period to salvage a fishery that the Commerce Secretary in 2000 had declared a federal disaster.

A new NOAA Sea Grant project will examine the ongoing effects of the new catch-shares policy in helping the fleet become both ecologically and economically viable.

Resource economists Christopher Costello and Robert Deacon, at the University of California, Santa Barbara, are leading the project, supported through a $1-million West Coast Sea Grant social science initiative, funded by NOAA Sea Grant and its partners.

Birdseye view of launch

Birdseye view of launch

U.S. Coast Guard crew members head out in a launch boat (seen from the deck of the Healy) to collect seawater samples that will be compared with saildrone measurements to ensure the accuracy of the saildrone sensors. Credit: Meredith LaValley, Interagency Arctic Research Policy Committee

Co-investigators on the two-year grant include UCSB marine ecology professor Steve Gaines, and fisheries science professors Trevor Branch and Ray Hilborn, both at the University of Washington, Seattle.

"At the high view, we want to understand the role of catch shares in creating social and economic well being," said Costello, who studies market-based approaches to resource management and conservation. "Up close, we are asking: 'What is the role of catch shares in solving the weak-stock by-catch problem?' This is new and exciting."

Weak stocks are species that have been overfished and are rebuilding, or species that are not overfished but have low-quota or are difficult to avoid.

The “catch shares” program was established for the West Coast groundfish fishery in response to concerns of overfishing, wasteful discards and inadvertent catches of protected species and weak stocks. The policy is also designed to incentivize fishermen to cooperate and innovate. Fishermen are, for example, allowed to switch or modify gear types to more selectively target species, and there are rewards for those who are able to reduce harvests of sensitive, overfished species.

According to a NOAA Fisheries analysis, the first year of revenue data shows promise that the catch-shares policy is working, as per vessel revenues for the non-whiting trawl fleet rose 34 percent in 2011, compared with the average of the previous five years. The whiting fleet posted even higher increases in revenue.

Researchers will be analyzing catch and landings data, provided by NOAA Fisheries, to look at harvests and gear types before and after catch shares. They hope to document the measures most effective at helping fishermen catch full quotas of target species while reducing harvests of unwanted and protected species. They will also look at whether smaller catches of higher-quality, higher-value fish, caught with more selective gear types, can boost profits.

In addition, they will be analyzing shifts in where fishing is occurring to explore whether local fleets are voluntarily avoiding sensitive habitat areas. The conservation benefits of these voluntary measures will be compared to those that might be expected via formal regulatory closures of fishing grounds.

The scientists will also study "risk pools," a form of risk management in which fishery participants pool their weak-stock quotas to insure themselves against accidental bad hauls of low-quota stocks. Members of the risk pool may be required to use only low-impact, highly selective gear or to halt fishing in certain areas.

A computer model will also be developed to simulate and predict conditions under which fishermen are most likely to cooperate to avoid weak-stock bycatch. To assess different policy options, the model will be run under a variety of management scenarios and compared across biological, social and economic metrics for the groundfish fishery, as well as other mixed-stock fisheries with weak-stock bycatch problems.

The West Coast groundfish fishery has traditionally been one of the region's most valuable commercial fisheries, with the trawl and at-sea Pacific whiting fisheries together commanding more than $100 million annually dockside in the late 80s. The fishery collapsed in the late 90s and was declared a federal fishery disaster in 2000. In 2003, under a federal boat buyout program, the fleet's fishing capacity was reduced by a third, but net profits still eluded the fleet in 2007, according to a NOAA Fisheries analysis.

The West Coast groundfish fishery joins 14 other fisheries nationally now managed under some form of a catch-shares program. Internationally, more than 20 countries have adopted catch shares. In Australia and New Zealand, nearly all fisheries are managed under quota-based systems.

"Fisheries are moving to catch shares," UCSB's Deacon said. "We think they can improve the economic stability of the fishery and provide conservation benefits. We are hoping our study will add a level of comfort to stakeholders. This is not a perfect management system but it is better than any thing else I've seen."

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