Friday in San Diego, after years of studies and debate, a federal fishery council is to vote on a plan to try to create a more profitable, sustainable and safer fishery. The plan would vest the region's trawl-boat owners with shares of the public seafood resource that can be sold like private stock.

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The West Coast fishing industry, rife with the discards of edible fish and plagued by major declines in several rockfish species, is on the cusp of historic change.

Friday in San Diego, after years of studies and debate, a federal fishery council is to vote on a plan to try to create a more profitable, sustainable and safer fishery. The plan would vest the region’s trawl-boat owners with shares of the public seafood resource that can be sold like private stock.

Yet even in this final week of deliberations by the Pacific Fishery Management Council, the terms of the deal are bitterly contested, with fishermen opposed to a proposal to allocate at least 20 percent of the initial catch shares to shore-based processors.

In recent days, a Washington state member of the council has played a key role in trying to fashion a compromise. Phil Anderson, who disclosed his plan Tuesday, proposes no one be granted individual shares to catch Pacific whiting, the biggest volume of the West Coast fisheries.

Instead, the fleet that catches whiting for delivery to shoreside processors would be encouraged to develop cooperatives. The vessels could then divide up the harvest but would not gain control of specific catch shares that could be sold to the highest bidder.

The whiting fishery is of major importance in Washington state. It sustains a plant in Westport, Grays Harbor County, that generates more than $100 million worth of products each year and has some 600 employees.

In the rest of the fishery for flatfish, rockfish and other species, trawlers would get harvest shares but processors would not.

“I am putting this on the table for discussion and wanted to let everyone know where I was coming from,” said Anderson.

He said it spawned “a frenzy of activity” among industry representatives attending the weeklong council meeting.

The harvest overhaul is the most complicated yet attempted by any U.S. fishery and has been promoted by conservation groups hoping to see similar changes elsewhere to help revive overfished stocks.

The changes would affect more than 120 trawl-boat operators that net dozens of edible species in harvests off California, Oregon and Washington. Also affected would be the processors that turn the catch into fresh and frozen products for U.S. and international markets.

The current management system involves seasonal derbies, where two-month catch limits are established for some key species, and a separate series of openings to net whiting.

These harvests have floundered as fishermen, in the race to fill up their holds, often accidentally catch depressed species of rockfish, exceed their trip limits or scoop up large volumes of lower-value seafood.

In fishing trips monitored in 2007, federal observers tallied discard rates of more than 40 percent of slope rockfish, 40 percent of skates, more than 40 percent of ling cod, and about 10 percent of the Dover sole.

“The waste is pretty horrific,” said Richard Carroll, a vice president of Ocean Gold Seafoods, which operates the Westport plant.

Share systems assure fishermen a fixed portion of catch, which they can catch themselves or sell to the highest bidder.

Proponents say the share system gives powerful incentives to slow down the harvest, avoid depressed stocks and reduce the waste.

They point to the share system in British Columbia as evidence the reforms can work. “What we have seen in other fisheries, and what we can expect to see here, is a dramatic reduction in bycatch (the accidental catch of a fish species),” said Johanna Thomas of the Environmental Defense Fund. “That’s the No. 1 problem plaguing these fisheries.”

Safety might also be improved, with fishermen facing less pressure to drop their nets in bad weather, according to Coast Guard officials.

But there is plenty of controversy about who should be granted shares of public fishery resources.

Processors cite their investments in shore-side plants and say that the only equitable allocation would give them harvest shares and ensure they are on an equal footing with fishermen. Fishermen are fiercely opposed to that proposal.

Anderson, a Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife official, has been widely considered a key swing vote on the 14-voting member council.

After consulting with many industry officials and the office of Gov. Christine Gregoire, Anderson says he opposes processor shares.

Three major processing companies buy much of the catch. Anderson said these companies already wield ample market power.

Anderson does support share systems for the trawl fishermen in the complex harvests that net some 80 species of rockfish, flatfish and other seafood.

But he balks at extending that system to the smaller fleet of less than 40 vessels that deliver whiting to shoreside plants.

Instead, he proposes whiting fishermen form cooperatives to voluntarily divide up the harvests.

But whiting fishermen who deliver shoreside doubt they could ever agree on a voluntary plan.

“I think this would leave us pretty much with the status quo. And I’m hoping before the final vote here that Phil can see the error of his ways,” said Marion Larkin, a Washington whiting fishermen.

Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or hbernton@seattletimes.com