Data compiled by NOAA's Fisheries Service strongly suggest that West Coast trawl fishermen are becoming more confident about a new fishery management system put in place early last year, and both they and the fish stocks they target are benefiting.
The new system, called catch shares, divides up the quotas for Pacific whiting and a broad array of bottom-dwelling fish into shares assigned to individual fishermen or other entities, based on their fishing history.
These fish can be caught anytime during the season that the fishermen want, eliminating the traditional, economically inefficient and sometimes dangerous race for fish, in which fishermen compete with one another to harvest as many fish as possible before the fishery is closed or severely restricted.
The new system, the most geographically extensive and diverse in the nation, includes some 60 species of commercially valuable West Coast groundfish. NOAA's fishery managers said that early in the second year of catch shares, fishermen know better what to expect, are using tools of the new system to plan their fishing year and are fishing more assertively in pursuit of those plans.
For example, the new system allows fishermen to trade the pounds of fish they are entitled to among each other. A fisherman who has a small allotment of one particular species of fish, or who simply doesn't want to harvest a particular species, can trade those so-called quota-pounds to another fisherman in exchange for quota-pounds that he does want.
The total pounds of such vessel-to-vessel transfers are 25 percent above the first six months of inaugural year of 2011. The number of such transfers – a good indicator of how precisely fishermen want to refine their catches – is double the same period last year.
Moreover, NOAA's preliminary data show many fishermen have been trawling in shallower waters, even though by doing so they may be more likely to encounter non-target species, the so-called bycatch that fishermen try to avoid.
NOAA's fishery managers say such shallow-water fishing suggests that the option fishermen have under the new system to trade quota-pounds of bycatch and confidence in their own ability to avoid unwanted species are enabling them to pursue target fish in more areas than during the first year of the program.
There is also increased activity in risk pools, arrangements in which several fishermen pool their bycatch quota pounds so that rare overages by one or a few members of the pool are covered by the group's pooled resources. Overall, bycatch rates are down substantially from pre-catch-shares years.
Neither risk pools nor quota-pound transfers and trades were options under the old system.
There are indications of increased diversity of landings and revenue distribution among fish species, according to NOAA. Some previously underutilized species, like chillipepper and yellowtail rockfishes, are responsible for a larger portion of total landings and revenues than during the same time last year. By contrast, some more traditional species, like Dover sole and sablefish, show a slight decrease in their share of total landings. While these signs of diversification likely reflect changes in prices of some species, NOAA says they may also reflect fishermen's intentional diversification of their catch "portfolios" – the fish they're entitled to – as they explore new areas and seek new markets.
Read the NOAA mid-year report on catch shares http://www.pcouncil.org/wp-content/uploads/H5b_NMFS_RPT_SEP2012BB.pdf