In a vote that sets the stage for sweeping changes, a federal fishery council tentatively approved a plan to vest fishermen and processors...

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In a vote that sets the stage for sweeping changes, a federal fishery council tentatively approved a plan to vest fishermen and processors with harvest shares of whiting, black cod and other groundfish caught off the West Coast.

The Pacific Fishery Management Council’s vote Thursday in Foster City, Calif., taps that plan as a “preferred alternative,” and it could finalize the plan in a second vote scheduled for the fall.

These harvest shares are intended to improve the economics and reduce the waste that has accompanied the current system, where fishermen race to the harvest grounds in fiercely competitive harvests. These harvest shares would give each vessel an individual fishing quota, which could be harvested in a more leisurely and — it’s hoped — less wasteful fashion. Fishermen also could sell these shares to the highest bidder.

But the terms of the new allocation system for this public fishery resource have been fiercely contested. Processors have argued that they had invested heavily in shoreside facilities, and deserved to be awarded as much as 50 percent of the harvest shares of fish brought ashore. That proposal was opposed by the trawl fishermen, who deliver their catch to these shore-side plants.

The council wrestling with the allocation system is a mix of federal, state and fishing-industry officials who help shape the rules within the 200-mile federal fishery zone off Washington, California and Oregon.

In the tentative plan, processors would be awarded 20 percent of all the groundfish brought ashore, according to Craig Urness, a legal counsel for Pacific Seafood Group.

“We’re very appreciative that the council recognized us in the initial allocation,” Urness said. “That was our big concern. If we were not involved and at the table [with shares], then there was no way we can support it.”

The groundfish fishery is the biggest on the West Coast, and the individual harvest shares could eventually be worth hundreds of millions of dollars collectively.

Thursday’s meeting included more than eight hours of public comment from fishermen, seafood processors, environmentalists and other stakeholders, including some who traveled from as far away as British Columbia to testify.

Besides being the West Coast’s most valuable fishery, the 80 species that comprise the groundfish group have been troubled in the past decade. Plummeting populations of some rockfish, often marketed as red snapper, forced closures that cut landings values nearly in half, and a fishery disaster was declared in 2000. The federal government agreed to buy boats to cut the fleet almost in half in 2003, leaving about 100 still fishing.

As the fishery is rebounding, there has been a push to bring individual fishing quotas to the West Coast harvests. They already are in place in some Alaska and British Columbia fisheries.

In addition to owning a fixed share of the quotas for each of the 80 species of groundfish, fishermen would be able to trade those quotas instantly to cover the times when they take more than their share, allowing them to keep fishing.

The program also would put fisheries observers, backed up by video cameras, on each of the boats to enforce the rules. Currently only about 20 percent have observers.

“It’s been a long, hard process,” said Donald Hansen, the council’s chairman. “But when it’s over, we’ll have a cleaner way of fishing.”

Hal Bernton: hbernton@seattletimes.com or 206-464-2581. The Associated Press contributed to this report.