Sun, Dec 29, 2019 - Page 7 News List

US fishery rebounds in rare conservation ‘home run’

A ban on bottom-trawler fishers off the US west coast is about to be lifted because fishers worked so well with environmentalists that populations of overfished species have recovered decades ahead of schedule

By Gillian Flaccus  /  AP, WARRENTON, Oregon

Illustration: Kevin Sheu

A rare environmental success story is unfolding in waters off the US west coast. After years of fear and uncertainty, bottom-trawler fishers — those who use nets to catch rockfish, bocaccio, sole, Pacific Ocean perch and other deep-dwelling fish — are making a comeback in the area, reinventing themselves as a sustainable industry less than two decades after authorities closed huge stretches of the Pacific Ocean because of the species’ depletion.

The ban devastated fishers, but on Wednesday, regulators are to reopen an area roughly three times the size of Rhode Island off Oregon and California to groundfish bottom trawling — all with the approval of environmental groups that were once the industry’s biggest foes.

The rapid turnaround is made even more unique by the collaboration between the fishers and environmentalists who spent years refining a long-term fishing plan that would continue to resuscitate the groundfish industry while permanently protecting thousands of square kilometers of reefs and coral beds that benefit the overfished species.

Now, the fishers who see their livelihood returning must solve another piece of the puzzle: drumming up consumer demand for fish that have not been in grocery stores or on menus for a generation.

“It’s really a conservation home run,” said Shems Jud, Pacific regional director for the Environmental Defense Fund’s ocean program.

“The recovery is decades ahead of schedule,” he said. “It is the biggest environmental story that no one knows about.”

The process also netted a win for conservationists concerned about the future of extreme deepwater habitats where bottom trawlers do not go. A tract of ocean the size of New Mexico with waters up to 3.4km deep would be off-limits to bottom-trawling to protect deep-sea corals and sponges just being discovered.

“Not all fishermen are rapers of the environment. When you hear the word ‘trawler,’ very often that’s associated with destruction of the sea and pillaging,” said Kevin Dunn, whose trawler Iron Lady was featured in a Whole Foods television commercial about sustainable fishing.

Groundfish is a catch-all term that refers to dozens of species that live on, or near, the bottom of the Pacific off the west coast. Trawling vessels drag weighted nets to scoop up as many fish as possible, but that can also damage critical rocky underwater habitats.

The groundfish fishery has not always struggled. Starting in 1976, the federal government subsidized the construction of domestic fishing vessels to lock down US interests in west coast waters, and by the 1980s, that investment paid off. Bottom trawling was booming, with 500 vessels in California, Oregon and Washington hauling in 91 million kilograms of non-whiting groundfish a year.

Unlike Dungeness crab and salmon, groundfish could be harvested year-round, providing an economic backbone for ports.

However, in the late 1990s, scientists began to sound the alarm about dwindling fish stocks.

Just nine of the more than 90 groundfish species were in trouble, but because of the way bottom trawlers fished — indiscriminately hauling up millions of kilograms of whatever their nets encountered — regulators focused on all bottom trawling.

Multiple species of rockfish, slow-growing creatures with spiny fins and colorful names such as canary, darksplotched and yellow eye, were the hardest hit.

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