West Coast fishery rebounds in rare conservation ‘home run’

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WARRENTON, Oregon (AP)—A rare environmental success story is unfolding in waters off the U.S. West Coast.

After years of fear and uncertainty, bottom trawler fishermen – those who use nets to catch rockfish, bocaccio, sole, Pacific Ocean perch and other deep-dwelling fish – are making a comeback here, 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 fishermen, but on Jan. 1, regulators reopened 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.

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

“It’s really a conservation home run,” said Shems Jud, regional director for the Environmental Defense Fund’s ocean program. “The recovery is decades ahead of schedule. It’s 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 currently don’t go. A tract of ocean the size of New Mexico with waters up to 2.1 miles deep will be off-limits to bottom-trawling to protect deep-sea corals and sponges just now 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 damage critical rocky underwater habitat.

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 pounds of whatever their nets encountered – regulators focused on all bottom trawling.

“We really wiped out the industry for a number of years,” Pettinger said. “To get those things up and going again is not easy.”

In 2011, trawlers were assigned quotas for how many of each species they could catch. If they went over, they had to buy quota from other fishermen in a system reminiscent of a carbon cap-and-trade model. Mandatory independent observers, paid by the trawlers, accompanied the vessels and hand-counted their haul.

Surveys soon showed groundfish rebounding – in some cases, 50 years faster than predicted – and accidental trawling of overfished species fell by 80 percent. The Marine Stewardship Council certified 13 species in the fishery as sustainable in 2014, and five more followed last year.

As the quota system’s success became apparent, environmentalists and trawlers began to talk. Regulators would soon revisit the trawling rules, and the two sides wanted a voice.

Trawlers brought maps developed over generations, alerted environmentalists to reefs they didn’t know about, and even shared proprietary tow paths.

Last year, regulators approved a plan to reopen the 17-year-old Rockfish Conservation Area off Oregon and California, while banning future trawling in extreme-depth waters and making off-limits some habitat dubbed essential to fish reproduction, including a large area off Southern California.

Even so, with fragile species rebounding, trawlers could harvest as much as 120 million pounds a year, but there’s only demand for about half that much. That’s because groundfish have been replaced in stores by farmed, foreign species like tilapia.

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