Overview of Fishery History

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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.

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