Fisheries innovations credited with West Coast groundfish recovery

The dramatic recovery of many groundfish species along the West Coast is a testament to the innovation, cooperation and persistence by fisheries managers and fishermen alike under the landmark Magnuson-Stevens Act of 1976.

Pacific whiting, sorted by size
Photo: National Marine Fisheries Service

One of the latest innovations, formally approved last month by the National Marine Fisheries Service, is “electronic monitoring,” which allows the use of video and other equipment in place of the human observers needed to ensure the accuracy of harvest reports.

The faster-then-expected recovery of depleted populations — including canary rockfish, bocaccio, darkblotched rockfish, and Pacific Ocean perch — has led to dramatically increased harvest limits this year. NMFS estimates that increased fishing will add 900 jobs and $60 million in income this year alone. Recreational anglers are expected to go fishing an additional 219,000 times, mostly in California with some of those outings in Oregon and Washington, according to a news release.

Going from a federally declared disaster in 2000 to today’s recovery of most stocks was the result of a monumental change in fisheries management and fishing culture. One of the biggest changes was a shift to “catch shares,” in which each commercial fisherman receives a percentage of the allowable harvest each year, an issue I first wrote about a decade ago (Water Ways, Dec. 11, 2009).

With individual fishing quotas, or IFQs, fishermen can go out when they choose, based on weather conditions, access, market demands or time constraints. There’s no rush to catch the fish before the fishery closes. With specific harvest limits set for each species of fish, fishers can buy or sell their quotas as needed to keep fishing as long as possible, while avoiding overfishing on any stock.

Bob Dooley, who recently retired after 40 years of trawling along the U.S. West Coast, recalls the “Wild West” days of ocean fishing when there was hardly any management.

“We had no sense of how much fish we were taking out of the water,” Dooley told a congressional subcommittee in May (PDF 127 kb). “Even in the late 70s, we could sense the declining catch rates in the groundfish fishery. But it wasn’t until the 1990s that we put the pieces together: The groundfish complex (including many rockfish species, flounder, sablefish, and sole) was so overfished that we knew we had to nearly halt fishing.

“In 2000,” he continued, “the fishery was declared a disaster, and the
Pacific Council implemented severe catch restrictions. Catch limits were so low it wasn’t even worth going out for these fish.

“Fast forward to last fall,” he said. “NOAA announced that many of the West Coast groundfish complex had recovered. The last two species left on the rebuilding list will likely be taken off next year after the next stock assessment.”

Dooley, a member of Seafood Harvesters of America and serves on the Pacific Fishery Management Council, opposes any major overhaul of the Magnuson-Stevens Act, which is up for reauthorization. The act, originally sponsored by Sen. Warren Magnuson of Washington and Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska, established the regional fisheries councils, where fishing policies are discussed among scientists, fishermen, fisheries managers and environmentalists.

“Sure, we can work on the implementation of certain parts of the law,” Dooley told the committee, “but I hope that if you take away one thing from my testimony today, it’s that we’re seeing results. As we improve data collection through innovative technologies and methods, as we improve accountability in all sectors, and as we continue to base our fisheries management on science, we will continue to see positive results.”

With all the advantages of the cost-share program, a key requirement is the need to count all the fish that get caught — including those discarded for economic reasons. Initially, that required a human observer to be on each boat. For the past several years, federal fisheries officials have allowed experimentation with electronic monitoring (EM), including video, for some fisheries.

Last month, formal approval was given to allow fishermen to choose the EM option in the Pacific whiting fishery and for fixed-gear vessels in the groundfish catch-share fishery. The new rule will take effect in 2021.

“Electronic monitoring is not suitable for all fisheries, but there are fisheries where we think it can work and give the fleet another option,” said Melissa Hooper, chief of permits and monitoring for the West Coast Region of NMFS, also known as NOAA Fisheries. See NOAA news release.

Cameras work well on fishing vessels that catch only a few kinds of fish, she noted. Experiments are ongoing with the bottom trawl fishery, which catches a wide variety of species, making accurate identification a difficult challenge. Human observers will always be needed for taking biological samples and conducting research.

Human observers are costly, and some vessel owners have been unable to find an available observer when they are ready to go out to sea. A large employee turnover in the observer program has been reported, and some observers have complained about how they were treated. See Alaska Journal of Commerce and original NOAA survey report (PDF 6.8 mb).

West Coast observers cost about $500 a day, according to recent estimates from NOAA. Although cameras, related equipment and installation may cost about $10,000, vessels owners could save from $100 to $300 a day over time.

One issue for fishermen is the future cost. The Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission, a government agency, has been conducting the review and analysis of the video during the pilot program. But the new rules require that the work be put out to bid, and most people involved in the program predict the costs will be higher.

Bob Dooley said the industry is concerned about cost, specifically that the government will require a “Cadillac system” when a “Chevy” will do.

“We should be working to develop and implement fishery-specific systems that get NOAA the data they need, not necessarily that they want…,” he said. “Electronic technologies have the ability to vastly improve fisheries management; EM can be more reliable, cost-effective, and scalable…. As an industry, we need to use our vessels as platforms of opportunity to aid in the ultimate goal of improving management while reducing costs to the industry and to NOAA.”

Because the cost-share program allows more precise harvest numbers, NMFS has allowed some traditional rules to be relaxed through exempted fishing permits, or EFPs. For example, vessels no longer need to return to port to switch from one type of fishing net to another; they can carry both types to change target species. See NOAA news release from April.

The Environmental Defense Fund has been working for years to bring “smart technology” to the fishing industry to better understand fish populations and allow for sustainable harvests, noted Melissa Mahoney, manager of EDF’s Pacific fisheries policy. She said EM is an important first step.

“This is a major milestone, and we congratulate the National Marine Fisheries Service on their forward-looking approach using technology to help solve real-world challenges,” she said in a news release. “But the job is far from done.

“We have amazing opportunities to harness technology in new ways, including through the use of real-time wireless data transmission, artificial intelligence that can detect when fishing is occurring and the use of sensors to tell us more about what’s happening in the ocean. This is an exciting time, and we’re proud to have contributed to the dialogue that led to this much-needed change.”

Other information about electronic monitoring:

One thought on “Fisheries innovations credited with West Coast groundfish recovery

  1. Great article, but I wonder why you left out the major driver of change in the groundfish fishery? I was a plaintiff in a series of lawsuits during 2001 that forced managers to obey the law and reduce fishing. These restrictions were resisted by the fishing industry. The innovations came about after court-ordered fishing restrictions, and they were a way to cope with the court-ordered changes. Without the court orders, I doubt we’d be celebrating recovery today. Here’s a link to an article that describes one lawsuit:
    Mark Powell

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