by: Patricia Leigh Brown

MORRO BAY, Calif. — Anyone seeking to learn about the fishing heritage of this port city, named for the huge rock that dominates its harbor, need only amble over to the “Liar’s Bench,” a sitting area along the Embarcadero for fishermen prone to telling tall tales. Or one could visit the Morro Bay Hookers, a thriving fraternity of fish-baiters who skewer anchovies and sardines onto hooks for a living, some 400 hooks per line.

Although this city of 10,370 has become a haven for retirees and tourists, commercial fishing remains Morro Bay’s symbolic heart and a mainstay of its economy. Ever since the commercial fishery was declared a federal economic disaster in 2000, fishermen in this coastal community of lazuline waters midway between Los Angeles and San Francisco have fought to hang on to their historic livelihood.

Faced with increased competition from corporate fish processors in bigger ports, fishermen here have joined forces with scientists and civic leaders to determine their own fate. In June, Morro Bay became the first community on the West Coast to do what their brethren in Cape Cod have already done: set up a community quota fund meant to give small-scale fishermen more equal footing with big-time operators.

Quota is the amount of a particular species of fish that can be caught in a geographic area, and quota rights can be expensive, with larger fishing companies easily able to squeeze out mom-and-pop fishermen. To solve that problem, the Morro Bay Community Quota Fund was established with fishing rights worth about $2 million for roughly 90 species; individual fishermen lease rights from the fund.

With Americans eating most of their seafood from foreign waters, quota funds are an effort to keep fishermen near their home fishing grounds. The idea, which is also being adopted by Monterey and Fort Bragg up the coast, is to make fishing financially viable and accessible to a younger generation.

“There is an implicit long-term value of having fishing in the community,” said Paul Parker, director of the Cape Cod Fisheries Trust, a pioneer of the concept in the United States. “It’s about saving maritime fishing heritage, just like saving small family farms in places like upstate New York and Vermont.”

The funds are a response to a federal management policy started in 2011 that allocates fishing rights for individual species. In essence, the new system created property rights for fishermen that can be bought, sold or traded depending on a fisherman’s desired catch.

But as fishing rights have become a salable commodity, dealt through specialized commercial fishing brokers, small ports like Morro Bay have become increasingly concerned that quota assigned to local vessels could leave the community. The fear is that, little by little, boat by boat, the port’s historic fishing heritage could be gobbled up by the highest bidder, with fishing rights consolidated into larger vessels in ports with mightier market power than Morro Bay.

That is where the community quota fund comes in.

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