The Nature Conservancy announced this week the purchase of six trawling permits and four trawling vessels from commercial fishermen in Morro Bay as part of a cooperative agreement with the fishing industry to protect a vast swath of ocean off the coast of central California. The precedent-setting acquisitions represent the nationâ€™s first private buy out of Pacific fishing vessels and permits for conservation purposes and to help reform a troubled fishery. . .
As fish and revenues declined, the fishing industry realized it was time to give the ocean a rest — to save their own livlihood. Faced with economic uncertainty, the Morro Bay trawl fisherman and the Conservancy hammered out a deal: theyâ€™d work cooperatively to identify diverse marine habitats that would be off limits to trawling and the Nature Conservancy would buy back permits and vessels to reduce trawling efforts and help ease the loss of fishing grounds.
"By working cooperatively with the fishing industry, regulators and other nonprofits, The Conservancy was able to persuade fishery managers to protect 3.8 million acres of ocean and reduce the bottom-trawling effort (in an area roughly the size of Connecticut) off the central California coast by 83 percent," said Chuck Cook, director of the Conservancyâ€™s California Coastal and Marine Program.
As A Result, Everybody Wins
Degraded seafloor communities and several depleted fish species will now get the chance to recover, and the fishing industry adapts a newly sustainable position. "The innovative collaborative approach illustrated by this program is a key to effective conservation in the 21st century," said Conservancy President and CEO Steve McCormick.
The Conservancy initiated the trawler buy-out program at Morro Bay as a pilot project three years ago. Concerned by a National Academy of Sciences report that documented the negative environmental effects of bottom trawling, the Conservancy and its nonprofit partner, Environmental Defense, approached Morro Bay trawl fishermen and harbormasters about developing a market-based plan that would protect seafloor communities and help boost a troubled fishery.
Trawlers drag large, weighted nets along the sea bottom, damage habitat and scoop up fish and other creatures not targeted by the fisherman. The catch they produce is high in volume but often low in value, and it puts pressure on several other species.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has declared six species of groundfish depleted. As a result of industry overcapitalization and over-fishing, revenues from Pacific groundfish trawling fell from $110 million in 1987 to $35 million in 2003.
In June 2005, the Fishery Council approved the consensus no-trawl map, which bans bottom trawling in 3.8 million acres of ocean between Point Conception off the coast of Santa Barbara, and Point Sur south of Monterey Bay. The U.S. Secretary of Commerce signed the map and additional closed areas into regulation in May 2006.
Working With Fishermen
"By working closely with fishermen, the Pacific Fishery Management Council and NOAA, the Nature Conservancy has found a surprising and effective new way of using private money to conserve a public resource," said William Hogarth, head of NOAAâ€™s National Marine Fisheries Service, the federal agency that manages marine fish stocks throughout the nation.
"One of the most serious obstacles to ocean conservationâ€”and to the fishing industry itselfâ€”is that too many boats are chasing too few fish," said Andy Rosenberg, professor of natural resources at the University of New Hampshire and former deputy director of NOAAâ€™s fisheries service. "The Nature Conservancyâ€™s privately funded buy-out strategy augments governmental regulatory programs and is an important and innovative step in moving the United States toward more sustainable fisheries."
"The deal with The Nature Conservancy provided me with options I didnâ€™t previously have," said veteran fisherman Gordon Fox, who sold his permit and vessel to the Conservancy. "It will give me a chance to try new, less costly methods of fishing off the central coast of California."
For now, the Conservancy is shelving the permits it has acquired and banking the harvest rights. In the future, however, it may request that regulators allow the Conservancy to lease back some permits to central coast fisherman who would use finer-scale, more selective gear and help create a certified market for sustainably harvested groundfish.
In addition to the six permits, the Conservancy has purchased four trawling vessels and is exploring alternative uses for them, such as oceanographic research, marine debris removal or marine surveillance and enforcement.
Cooperation Pays Off
"Weâ€™ve shown we can all work together to protect both the environment and commercial fishing," said Chris Kubiak, a trawler who sold his vessel and permit to the Conservancy and played a lead role in developing the no-trawl map. "This deal will help us to keep supplying the country with healthy seafood."
While federal agencies have conducted buy-back programs using public funds, the Morro Bay buy-out is the first on the Pacific coast to be privately financed. The cost of acquiring a permit and vessel runs several hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The Nature Conservancy is interested in protecting the waters off Californiaâ€™s central coast because they include large offshore banks, rocky reefs, kelp beds, coral gardens and some of North Americaâ€™s largest and deepest underwater canyonsâ€”all of which support a diverse array of wildlife.
"The Conservancyâ€™s Morro Bay pilot project demonstrates what can be accomplished when the conservation community works with regulators and the fishing industry to address complex problems affecting our natural resources and livelihoods," said Mark Burget, executive director of the Conservancyâ€™s California Program. "In a state like Californiaâ€”where our natural areas are increasingly feeling the pinch of rapid, unplanned growthâ€”collaboration is the key to protecting our land, our water and our way of life for future generations." (Nature Conservancy )