Sometimes it can feel like success stories are rare in the arena of conservation. However, off the coast of California, Oregon and Washington, there's a triumphant success story in progress. In the rich frigid waters of the West Coast’s groundfish fisheries – a group of over 90 species that includes rockfish, petrale sole and sablefish – we are seeing significant progress in conservation.
The past few years have marked great progress for the coast’s groundfish. By Summer 2019, the latest development in this conservation comeback story rolled in: the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) published the first of two rules that will allow electronic monitoring as an alternative to human observers aboard vessels in a significant portion of the West Coast’s trawl fleet.
Conservation through new tech
In 2018, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation awarded grants to drive the understanding and implementation of electronic monitoring and other advanced technology as a conservation tool. Technology like the electronic monitoring systems planned for groundfish fishing vessels are meant to collect accurate data on discards —fish and other sea life that is thrown away at sea during a catch — to inform estimates for the volume of discard, as well as for supporting catch accounting (a quota management system where fishermen are responsible for all pounds caught).
Fishermen with electronic monitoring systems are required to self-report their discards to NMFS via a logbook, which will be verified using the electronic monitoring data. By outsourcing what was once a laborious, manual task of human observers to this new technology, fisheries can enjoy both a less expensive workflow, and a potentially more accurate — and efficient — count. Eventually, this technology could progress to a stage in which it supplies real-time information and data, translating to more nimble and adaptive fisheries management.
The NMFS decision also aims to increase economic stability for the fishermen who harvest the coast’s groundfish. Bringing electronic monitoring to regional fishing vessels signals lower long-term costs for fishermen, who are currently required to have a human monitor on board at all times — a requirement that costs fishermen roughly $600 per day. Though the new technology requires an initial investment of approximately $10,000 for the camera system and installation, NOAA Fisheries estimates that these video surveillance systems could save individual fishermen from $3,000 to $24,000 a year.
Half a century of progress
The fight to protect groundfish, and the groundfish fishing industry, goes back nearly fifty years. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, US fishing fleets expanded greatly with support from the government and without much regulation. By 1999, several groundfish species were showing signs of overfishing. In 2000, the Secretary of Commerce declared the West Coast groundfish fishery an economic failure — a failure which is estimated to have cost groundfish fishermen roughly $11 million in revenue. Regulators drastically reduced fishing pressure by implementing closed areas, gear modifications and trip limits. At the same time, between 1999 and 2009, in the coast’s water, nine of the most popular species of groundfish were suffering from dangerous reductions in their numbers as a result of the vigorous overfishing and were declared to be overfished.
Over the past two decades, the situation has improved in leaps and bounds, thanks to an intentional shift in the culture of the fisheries. In 2011, a catch share system was put in place in the West Coast Groundfish Trawl Fishery, decreasing the destructive push of competition — which had previously incentivized volume of catch over environmentally conscious, catches — and allowing fishers to harvest their share of the catch more efficiently and profitably. It also meant that fishermen were held individually accountable for everything they catch through 100 percent monitoring (both at sea and dockside). The number of fish thrown away at sea plummeted. In 2014, the international Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) granted the West Coast groundfish fishery a sustainable certification, calling it “the most diverse, complex fishery ever to enter assessment against the MSC standard anywhere in the world.” If you like fish tacos, then this is great news, because you’re likely eating groundfish.
These changes have been made possible by the region’s fishermen, processors, NGO’s, and environmental advocates, who have banded together to bring stable footing back under the proverbial feet of the West Coast groundfish fishery. For example, in July 2019, The Nature Conservancy transferred their remaining groundfish permits and quota to community fisheries at four California ports that together form the California Groundfish Collective, thereby completing the vision of reinvesting back into California fishing communities.
In parallel, members of the California Groundfish Collective have increased efforts on groundfish supply chains, hoping to ensure harvesters benefit financially from the increased market opportunities. And, Positively Groundfish, a non-profit trade association, was founded to rebuild the public’s appetite for groundfish. The association partnered with members from processors like Bornstein Seafoods, Pacific Seafood and Hallmark Fisheries, as well as from organizations such as the Marine Stewardship Council, the Environmental Defense Fund, and the Oregon Trawl Commission — an effort greatly aided by the association’s charismatic executive director, Jana Hennig.
The efforts to rebound this special fishery have made waves in the conservation world. With continued collaboration across industry lines, and advanced monitoring techniques, there is every hope that it will continue to exceed our expectations.