West Coast Groundfish



The West Coast Shorebased Individual Fishing Quota (IFQ) Program was implemented in the West Coast groundfish trawl fishery in January 2011. This fishery operates off Washington, Oregon, and California and targets a diverse group of species, including Pacific whiting, sole, flounder, rockfish, lingcod, sablefish, and more. Whiting (also known as hake) are caught with midwater trawl nets, while the other groundfish species are harvested mainly with bottom trawls. The Shorebased IFQ Program is a Limited Access Privilege Program as defined by the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA). Under the program, the limited entry trawl permit holders who make up the “shorebased whiting” and “non-whiting” sectors of the West Coast groundfish trawl fishery were merged into a single sector and managed with IFQs. The at-sea whiting sectors are managed by separate cooperative programs (for the mothership and catcher/processor trawl fleets). Although the Shorebased IFQ Program and cooperative programs manage two different components (shorebased whiting and non-whiting sector versus at-sea whiting) of the groundfish fishery, the programs are referred to collectively as the Pacific Groundfish Trawl Rationalization Program. The Measuring the Effects of Catch Shares project is evaluating only the Shorebased IFQ Program.

Timeline for the West Coast groundfish trawl fishery (Click to enlarge)

Program Goal

The overall goal of the Shorebased IFQ Program is to “rationalize” the groundfish trawl fishery by replacing many of the previous fishery management measures, including trip limits for most groundfish species, with alternative measures. One of the objectives of the program is to reduce catch rates for overfished species, thereby ameliorating the problem of these species constraining the harvest of healthier stocks. The program seeks to accomplish this objective by holding fishermen individually accountable for any catch of 29 IFQ species or species groups. “Top down” controls like the bimonthly cumulative trip limits were replaced by limits imposed on the vessel through the requirement to match quota pounds to catch. One hundred percent at-sea observer coverage ensures full individual vessel accountability. Furthermore, vessels that harvest IFQ species must deliver to a processor or buyer holding a first receiver site license issued by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). To verify deliveries of IFQ species, licensed processing or buying facilities must have a dockside monitor present during all such deliveries.

In addition, the Shorebased IFQ Program allows limited entry trawl permit holders to switch from trawl to fixed gears (longline and pot gear) to fish their individual quota. Fixed gears, used to catch sablefish, are more selective than trawl gear and have less potential impact to benthic habitat. This opportunity for gear switching mainly relates to sablefish, which are caught in deeper water, rather than nearshore groundfish species subject to state regulatory constraints.

IFQ Species or Species Groups in the Shorebased IFQ Program


  • Lingcod north of 40°10′ N lat.
  • Lingcod south of 40°10′ N lat.
  • Pacific cod
  • Pacific whiting
  • Sablefish south of 36° N. lat.
  • Sablefish north of 36° N. lat.


  • Dover sole
  • English sole
  • Petrale sole
  • Arrowtooth flounder
  • Starry flounder
  • Other flatfish stock complex
  • Pacific halibut (IBQ) north of 40°10′ N. lat.

  • Pacific ocean perch north of 40°10′ N lat.
  • Widow rockfish
  • Canary rockfish
  • Chilipepper rockfish south of 40°10′ N lat.
  • Bocaccio rockfish south of 40°10′ N lat.
  • Yellowtail rockfish north of 40°10′ N lat.
  • Splitnose rockfish south of 40°10′ N lat.
  • Shortspine thornyhead north of 34°27′ N. lat.
  • Shortspine thornyhead south of 34°27′ N. lat.
  • Longspine thornyhead north of 34°27′ N. lat.
  • Cowcod rockfish south of 40°10′ N lat.
  • Yelloweye rockfish
  • Darkblotched rockfish
  • Minor slope rockfish spp complex north of 40°10′ N lat.
  • Minor shelf rockfish spp complex north of 40°10′ N lat.
  • Minor slope rockfish spp complex south of 40°10′ N lat.
  • Minor shelf rockfish spp complex south of 40°10′ N lat.

Quota Allocation

Under the catch share program, NMFS divides the West Coast groundfish trawl fishery allocation among eligible recipients as percentages of the total allocation. This individual apportionment of catch percentage is called quota share (QS). Limited entry trawl permit owners were given an initial allocation of 90 percent of the QS for non-whiting species and 80 percent of the QS for Pacific whiting. Eligible shorebased processors received 20 percent of the Pacific whiting QS.  After the first two years of the program ten percent of the QS for non-whiting species will be set aside for an adaptive management program, which is intended to be used to facilitate new entry into the West Coast groundfish trawl fishery and to address community stability, processor stability, conservation, and unintended or unforeseen consequences of the catch share program.

Individual limited entry trawl permit owners received an initial allocation of QS for various target species/species groups based on their permit’s catch history in qualifying years. In addition, NMFS allocated QS for overfished species to each permit owner based on a proxy of the amount of target species QS allocated to the owner. Eligible shorebased processors received an initial allocation of QS for Pacific whiting based on their history of being the first receiver reported on state fish tickets.

Each year, the percentage of catch represented by the QS is converted into poundage based on the total amount of catch available to the sector. This poundage is known as quota pounds (QP). The QP is annually issued to each eligible recipient according to his or her QS, but in order to be fished, the QP has to be transferred into a vessel account. A fisherman may choose to transfer the QP to his or her own vessel account, or may elect to lease the QP and transfer them to another vessel account entirely. Any vessel owner whose vessel is registered to a valid limited entry trawl permit may open a vessel account.

Quota Transfer

Transfers of QP are a means of meeting short-term mismatches between catches and holdings. Under the Shorebased IFQ Program, QP is transferable between vessels in increments of whole pounds, and beginning January 1, 2014, QS will become transferable as well. All U.S. citizens will be eligible to acquire QS percentages from existing QS owners. However, the program places limits on the amount of QS that can be owned or controlled by a person, or the amount of QP that can be assigned to a vessel’s QP account. These accumulation limits are expressed as a percentage of the Shorebased IFQ Program’s allocation. Any person that qualified for an initial allocation of QS in excess of the accumulation limits was allowed to receive that allocation but must divest themselves of the excess QS by November 30, 2015. In 2016, any QS held by a person in excess of the accumulation limits will be revoked and redistributed to the remainder of the qualified fishermen in proportion to their QS holdings. No compensation will be due for any revoked share.

An online system maintained by NMFS displays in real-time not only the list of QS holders but also the amounts of QS and QP each QS holder owns held and the amount of QP harvested. Transfers of QP can be completed via the online system, upon approval of the trade by buyer and seller and confirmation by NMFS that both parties are eligible and that the QP trade falls within established accumulation limits.

Beyond simply permitting QP/QS transfers, catch quota matching in the Shorebased IFQ Program is also facilitated by permitting vessels to balance their catches and QP holdings retrospectively. The program provides flexibility by allowing a fisherman who has experienced an overage a 30-day grace period to transfer QP into his or her vessel account to cover the overage. During this 30-day period, the fisherman is prohibited from fishing in the groundfish trawl fishery and from selling or transferring his or her limited entry trawl permit until sufficient QP is transferred to the vessel account.

Carryover Allowance

Furthermore, the Shorebased IFQ Program includes a carryover allowance that allows a portion of surplus QP in a vessel account to be carried over from one year to the next, or allows a portion of a deficit in a vessel account for one year to be carried over and covered with QP from a subsequent year. A vessel with a QP deficit in the current year would be able to cover that deficit with QP from the following year without incurring a violation if the amount of QP it needs from the following year is within the carryover allowance and the QP are acquired within the specified time limits. The carryover amount for a deficit is based on the amount of QP in the vessel account at the end of the 30-day period during which a vessel would be required to cover its overage. The carryover allowance is limited to up to 10 percent carryover for each species. By allowing a transfer of yield surpluses or deficits of species from one year to the next, the carryover provision spreads the risk of exceeding a constraining species limit over a longer period. If an annual constraining species limit is exceeded, a vessel could adopt more precautionary and selective fishing practices in the following year.

Cost Recovery

The MSA requires fishermen to pay fees that cover the costs of management, data collection and analysis, and enforcement activities related to the Shorebased IFQ Program. The cost recovery fee amount due is calculated by multiplying ex-vessel value by a fee percentage calculated annually by NMFS. The 2014 cost recovery fee percentage for the Shorebased IFQ Program was set at 3 percent, which is the maximum percentage allowable under the MSA. All groundfish species from IFQ landings are subject to the cost recovery fee. This includes groundfish that are not IFQ species, but does not include Pacific halibut. It includes groundfish from IFQ landings regardless of the gear type used. In other words, an IFQ landing from a vessel fishing with non-trawl gear is also subject to the cost recovery fee. Harvesters are responsible for paying the cost recovery fee, and all parties making the first ex-vessel purchase of groundfish (i.e., the fish buyers) are responsible for collecting, accounting for, and forwarding the fee to NMFS. In order to reduce the burden on industry NMFS structured cost recovery for the Shorebased IFQ Program to coordinate with the Pacific Coast groundfish buyback program (History of Fishery). The cost recovery program utilizes elements of the buyback program as much as possible, including payment of fees at the same time that buyback fees are paid, making the fish buyer responsible for payment of the fees to NMFS, and use of the same online portal for payment.

Interactive Timeline

Overview of Fishery History

A commercial groundfish fishery has existed off the U.S. West Coast since the late 19th century. Early concerns about decreased production of some species led to management measures, such as the voluntary adoption of minimum trawl mesh sizes in the California flatfish fishery in the 1930s. Strong markets during World War II, together with technological advances in fish handling and processing, carried the groundfish fishery into an immediate post-war expansion, but by the 1960s, domestic groundfish landings were relatively stable, averaging about 30,000 mt annually.

However, foreign fishing fleets also operated in the Washington, Oregon, and California area. The Soviet Union operated a fleet of catcher/processors (factory trawlers that both catch fish and process it on board) as early as the mid-1960s for Pacific whiting and rockfish, especially Pacific Ocean perch. Poland, the German Democratic Republic, the Federal Republic of Germany, and the Republic of Korea also sent vessels, primarily catcher/processors targeting whiting, which at the time, was harvested for production of fish protein concentrate.

In the early 1970s domestic landings began a steady increase. By 1976, when the Fishery Conservation and Management Act (the Act would later be known as the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA)) was passed, annual non-whiting groundfish landings had reached 60,000 mt, and by 1982, when the fishery management plan (FMP) for Pacific Coast groundfish was implemented, total landings (excluding foreign and joint venture catch) reached 116,000 mt. A major reason for this rapid growth in domestic non-whiting groundfish landings was the implementation of federal government policies and programs that fostered growth in harvesting capacity.

At the same time, the Pacific whiting fishery was evolving from a foreign fishery to a domestic fishery. In the late 1980s, joint venture operations for Pacific whiting expanded, leading to elimination of all foreign harvesting in 1989. By the early 1990s, U.S-flagged catcher/processor vessels and motherships (vessels that take deliveries from catcher vessels and process the fish on board) had exclusive access to the at-sea whiting fishery. Concurrently, the shorebased Pacific whiting fleet developed as coastal processors that had traditionally only purchased non-whiting groundfish entered the expanding market for whiting-based surimi seafood.

By the 1980s, non-whiting groundfish landings began to decline due to the high level of fishing capacity and decreases in the abundance of several groundfish species caused by a period of reduced productivity of the California Current. From the late 1980s to the early 1990s, the Pacific Fishery Management Council instituted increasingly restrictive management practices, including reduced trip limits, shorter fishing seasons, bycatch limits and gear restrictions. In 1993, NMFS implemented Amendment 6 to the Pacific Coast Groundfish FMP, establishing a license limitation program in the groundfish fishery. Passage of the Sustainable Fisheries Act of 1996 law brought additional requirements that overfishing be eliminated. Between 1999 and 2002, nine groundfish stocks were declared overfished. Rebuilding plans for these stocks were implemented, reducing allowable fishing mortality for overfished and associated species throughout all sectors of the groundfish fishery. In addition, major portions of the Continental Shelf off the U.S. West Coast were closed to fishing.

By 1999, non-whiting groundfish landings had fallen to 38,100 mt. In 2000, at the request of fishermen, fishery managers, and the Governors of California, Oregon, and Washington, the U.S. Secretary of Commerce declared a commercial fishery failure in the West Coast groundfish trawl fishery. In 2003, a voluntary vessel and permit buyback program was implemented in the West Coast groundfish trawl fishery, with most of the program’s costs financed through a federal loan. The buyback program allowed the holders of limited entry groundfish permits with a trawl endorsement to submit a bid to have not only their groundfish trawl permit purchased by the government but also any other federal fishing permit as well as state Dungeness crab and pink shrimp permits. The fishermen remaining in the fishery are required to repay the federal loan through landings fees based on a percentage of the delivery value of the groundfish, Dungeness crab and pink shrimp they harvest. The program downsized the trawl fleet by 91 vessels and reduced the number of limited entry trawl permits from approximately 263 to 171. Yet those fishermen that chose to stay in the fishery continued to struggle to make an adequate livelihood from fishing.

Prior to implementation of the West Coast Shorebased Individual Fishing Quota (IFQ) Program, the Pacific Fishery Management Council (PFMC) managed the groundfish trawl fishery through a number of measures, including harvest guidelines, bimonthly cumulative trip limits, area restrictions, seasonal closures and gear restrictions. Many of these management measures were designed to keep the fishery within the catch limits for a number of species declared overfished under the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA).

For example, to protect certain species and species groups, trawling was restricted in several areas, notably the Cowcod Conservation Area (southern California, implemented in 2001), Yelloweye Rockfish Conservation Area (northern Washington, 2002) and Rockfish Conservation Areas (coastwide, 2003). These depth-based area closures were designed to exclude fishing effort from those depth zones particularly inhabited by overfished species. In effect, the conservation areas closed most of the shelf region to bottom trawling for groundfish, forcing fishermen to concentrate on either shallow-water flatfish species (e.g., rex sole and English sole) or deep-water species (primarily Dover sole, shortspine thornyhead, longspine thornyhead and sablefish). Beginning in 2007, the structure of the Rockfish Conservation Areas became highly complex, due to efforts to allow as much access to target species as possible, while avoiding discrete areas with high bycatch rates of overfished species.

MSA requirements to rebuild stocks of overfished species also led to major reductions in trip limits. For instance, trip limits for canary rockfish declined 20-fold, from 2,700 kg per month in 1995 to 45–270 kg per two months in 2000. The reductions applied not only to overfished species, but also to co-occurring target species, so that fishermen would have less incentive to continue fishing after reaching the trip limits for overfished species. In short, the groundfish trawl fishery was largely managed based on constraints imposed by a few species, even if those species were not targeted by any fishermen.

In the Pacific whiting fishery the competition between the shorebased and at-sea sectors escalated into a race for fish and a political battle for allocation and rights of access. In 1996, the PFMC implemented an allocation scheme that created four distinct sectors: tribal, catcher/processors, motherships and shorebased. After providing the tribal allocation, the remaining portion of the Pacific whiting total allowable catch (TAC) was allocated to the other three sectors: 42 percent to the shorebased sector; 24 percent to motherships; and 34 percent to catcher/processors. While the allocation eliminated the race for fish among sectors, the race for fish within sectors continued. In 1997, the companies operating catcher/processors formed a cooperative that allowed members to voluntarily divide the sector’s allocation among themselves. However, the shorebased and mothership sectors of the fishery had many more vessels, which made it more difficult to form cooperatives to coordinate the harvest of their allocations. The race for fish within these sectors intensified in 2009 when the PFMC established sector-specific bycatch limits for certain overfished rockfish species. If a sector’s bycatch limit was reached or projected to be reached, all vessels in the sector were required to stop fishing, regardless of whether the sector’s Pacific whiting allocation had been achieved.

The shorebased groundfish trawl fleet first suggested some type of IFQ program in the 1990s, but it was deterred by the moratorium on new IFQ programs included in the Sustainable Fisheries Act of 1996. In 2001, Amendment 14 to the Pacific Coast Groundfish Fishery Management Plan (FMP) implemented a permit stacking program for the limited entry, fixed-gear sablefish fishery. This program mimicked some of the benefits of an IFQ program by allowing eligible permit owners to stack up to three permits on a single vessel in order to access the sablefish trip limits associated with each of those permits. Following the expiration of the moratorium in 2002, fleet representatives again raised the suggestion of a formal IFQ program.

In response, the PFMC established a Trawl Individual Quota Committee in 2003, which was charged with assisting the Council in identifying the elements of a trawl individual quota program and scoping alternatives and potential impacts of those alternatives. Over the next several years, the Shorebased IFQ Program was implemented through two amendments to the Pacific Coast Groundfish Fishery Management Plan. Amendment 20, which was approved in June 2010, established the Shorebased IFQ Program for the shorebased trawl fleet (including whiting and non-whiting sectors) and cooperative programs for the at-sea (whiting only) mothership and catcher/processor trawl fleets.

Amendment 21 to the FMP established fixed allocations for limited entry trawl participants (October 2010), and the final rule (December 2010) added program details, including program components applicable to gear switching, observer programs, retention requirements, equipment requirements, catch monitors, catch weighing requirements, first receiver site licenses, quota share accounts, vessel accounts, further tracking and monitoring components, and economic data collection requirements. The Shorebased IFQ Program went into effect in January 2011.

Since the Shorebased IFQ Program was implemented, the Pacific Fishery Management Council has been addressing a docket of so-called “trailing amendments,” or additional items needed to modify and adapt the program to concerns that arose in the deliberation and development phases but were not addressed in Amendments 20 and 21. The PFMC has adopted a cost recovery structure, remedied issues that arose in a court challenge, made recommendations of a possible reallocation of whiting quota shares and catch history assignments, and approved a number of clarifying actions for implementation.

The NMFS Northwest Fisheries Science Center has begun assembling baseline socioeconomic studies that will be updated every two years up to 2015. The industry is actively engaging in workshops, information sessions, and online communications to apprise its members of requirements, data, quota banking and trades, and other key information. Because of the mandatory economic data collection provisions of the program, key elements for evaluation will be collected from the outset. A website that shows current balances for quota share and vessel account by species is now available.

A complete history of PFMC discussions and National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) documents related to the Shorebased IFQ Program is available on the PFMC website.