Rockfish Recovery in More Ways than One

Rockfish

Top: Shortraker rockfish, photo via NOAA Fisheries

A lifetime ago, on the day after Christmas last year, the Associated Press published a news story about West Coast fisheries that tens of thousands of Americans read, and you may have read it too. Calling the recovery of rockfish stocks off the West Coast “the biggest environmental story that no one knows about,” the story highlights the extraordinary recovery of the several species constraining the fishery, once depleted and subject to overfishing, decades ahead of schedule.

The story of rockfish recovery is a good one, and it deserves to be sung from the rooftops. The early recovery of rockfish is certainly a marquee moment for the legacy of the Magnuson-Stevens Act and the Pacific Fishery Management Council (PFMC), including its Habitat Committee, on which I sit as of this writing. Just as important for this story, however, is the financial pain and hardship that the closures of rockfish fisheries caused to West Coast fishing businesses and the communities that host them. It all forms a heady mix that can contribute effectively to finding paths forward.

One of the major keys to the reversal of rockfish misfortune was omitted from the AP story last year: open access hook-and-line groundfish fisheries. Historically, hook-and-line fishing methods were a major driver of groundfish landings in West Coast ports. As recently as the late 1970s, hook-and-line fishermen were landing as much or more of several valuable species of rockfish than their mobile gear colleagues in several ports. And, of course, prior to the privatization and commodification of access to federally managed stocks via Limited Access Privilege Programs (aka “catch shares”), both trawl and non-trawl sectors operated via open access permitting approaches that varied over the years and across the states.

Rockfish is the third leg of the stool for small-scale fishermen, along with salmon and crab, in most West Coast ports. Hook-and-line rockfish, including live market catch, was a vital part of the landings mix up and down the coast prior to the closures of the last decade. It still is today for the relative few nearshore non-trawl fishermen who have secured access by purchasing a permit and making the fishery part of their business plan. For some, hook-and-line rockfish in COVID times have become a central part of their livelihoods (see On the Waterfront, “Selling Direct Provides Rewards Beyond Survival During This Emergency”, June 17, 2020)

Hook-and-line rockfish occupies a critically important place in the market; it’s a fundamentally different product from trawl-caught fish. The meat market for this sector regularly fetches $1.50-2.50 per pound more than the trawl sector, and the live market can net a fisherman $4-6 more than his or her mobile gear colleagues. The economic effects of this price premium buoy the entire market while ensuring that West Coast rockfish is part of the gourmet and upmarket dinnerplate consumer awareness. We need to see rockfish in the restaurant market replacing imported tilapia as well as reclaiming its place alongside other American-caught filet, whole fish, and live product in the cold case, supermarket freezer, Asian specialty retailer, and white tablecloth restaurant markets alike.

Perhaps the most important rationale for guaranteeing an open access allocation for rebuilt rockfish stocks is to ensure access for new entrants. Young fishermen looking to access nearshore stocks and build their businesses are running out of options for low cost-of-entry sectors here. Uncertainty in fixed gear sectors, highly variable salmon fisheries, and reduced processing capacity are creating more stress on the next generation of fishermen than ever before. Returning an open access allocation to the portfolio of nearshore small-scale opportunity could save hundreds of fishermen’s livelihoods, and provide opportunity for the future workforce in difficult years to come.

As I see it, there are three overarching categorical challenges to successfully implementing a thriving open access allocation for West Coast rockfish. The first major challenge is political: will small-scale fishermen demand open access hook-and-line fishing opportunity? I know that Council members understand this issue, and many, even those whose traditional constituency hails from the trawl sector, believe in the diversity of the industry. But will they vote to support a truly meaningful open access allocation? And will NOAA dedicate the resources necessary to ensure a place for it within the sustainable fisheries management framework? Will an analysis of the habitat impacts of hook-and-line and open access fixed gear rockfish fisheries be completed thoroughly and expeditiously?

The second major challenge is monitoring and accountability. The groundfish fishery management plan contains provisions that make it a virtual certainty that some form of monitoring, either observers or cameras, will be a part of fishing operations prosecuting open access rockfish. The high costs of both approaches make this a daunting challenge for cash-strapped young fishermen and established operators alike. Will NOAA ensure that monitoring programs for open access participants are minimally expensive and maximally accountable? Will the agency ensure that monitoring is done appropriately such that open access impacts to stocks are assessed thoroughly and appropriately? Will we avoid the mistakes of the past that ignored communities and led to species’ collapse?

The third major challenge is marketing, which is driven partly by macroeconomic factors and partly by infrastructure (or lack thereof). Fishermen participating in the live market rockfish fishery tell me demand continues to exceed supply, even during the pandemic, although distribution remains a massive challenge. The story of rockfish recovery is being told, and this should continue. But will there be enough demand for sustainably managed rebuilt stocks to open up new markets and domestic processing capacity, rather than feed a globalized, carbon intensive export market? Will we work together to remind the American seafood consumer about this important and affordable local seafood product and supply all facets of the marketplace?

Americans are rediscovering their local seafood and realizing the tremendous domestic food security value and climate benefits of America’s sustainably fisheries management. As we continue to take stock of these food system dynamics while we proceed through and emerge from lockdown, let’s ensure that small-scale fisheries, including and beyond those whose success stories are being told in the media, are part of our management and marketing strategies for recovery. That’s what fisheries policy should be designed to do.

About Noah Oppenheim

Noah Oppenheim is the principal of Homarus Strategies LLC. He lives in Brunswick, Maine.

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