West Coast EFP Successfully Targets Pelagic Rockfish with Minimal Bycatch

SEAFOODNEWS.COM by Susan Chambers – April 19, 2017

More than 750,000 pounds of West Coast rockfish have been landed in roughly a month under an exempted fishing permit, creating a small boon for fishermen and markets.

The 2017 annual catch limits (ACLs) for many rockfish species such as canary and widow rockfish, formerly listed as overfished, increased more than five times what they were in 2016 — but the trawl fleet had no real way to access them under the catch shares program, which holds fishermen 100 percent accountable but did not remove archaic management regulations.

Four entities — the Oregon Trawl Commission, West Coast Seafood Processors Association, Environmental Defense Fund and Pacific Seafood — approached NMFS late in 2016 with the idea to relax some of the trawl gear regulations so fishermen could access the pelagic rockfish. The trawl gear regulations in the EFP would be a subset of the larger gear regulations package the industry hoped would be implemented in 2017 but found out was delayed.

The support of 13 lawmakers were instrumental in getting the project started. Reps. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore.; Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Wash.; Peter DeFazio, D-Ore.; Jared Huffman, D-Calif.; Derek Kilmer, D-Wash.; Denny Heck, D-Wash.; Greg Walden, R-Ore.; Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore.; Suzanne Bonamici, D-Ore; and Sens. Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray, D-Wash.; and Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., all signed a letter supporting the trawl gear changes.

“This timing is essential because after new stock assessments showed that many rockfish stocks had been rebuilt years ahead of schedule, the PFMC approved rockfish trawl allocations for the 2017-2018 biennium that will allow for the first targeted rockfish fishery in almost 20 years,” they wrote.

The lawmakers’ letter to NMFS also supported approval of the full trawl gear regulations package.

“The goal of this EFP is to test how to improve harvests of healthy pelagic rockfish populations, like widow and yellowtail, with the least possible salmon impacts,” EDF’s Shems Jud said. “The fishing that has occurred to date under the EFP, which incorporates a number of incentive-based mechanisms as well as an overall cap on salmon to reduce bycatch, suggests we can dramatically improve rockfish attainment and fleet revenue with very low impacts to salmon stocks. We’re very optimistic.”

The EFP has not been without problems. It was meant to be implemented by Jan. 1, but delayed until the end of February, giving processors little time to market rockfish in time for Lent. Some distributors spent a lot of time and effort to create marketing plans for fish expected to be delivered in February, only to fall short and have major retail chains back away from purchases because product delivery was not made.

“It truly became a ‘Lucy and the football’ experience,” Pacific Seafoods’ Mike Okoniewski said.

Okoniewski’s frustrations with the EFP are similar to the industry’s frustrations with NMFS’ overall regulatory process. In other words, if the seafood industry and communities are going to benefit from a rationalized trawl fishery, the fishery itself must behave in a “rational” business-like manner.

“Flexibility of the regulatory platform itself is key to realize this goal. Placing a Yugo engine in a Ferrari body does not yield a race car,” Okoniewski said. “The West Coast trawl fishery catch share regulatory program must be made capable of operating in ways that enhance business opportunities, not suppress them.”

Still, many are optimistic. Some local West Coast restaurants are featuring rockfish as specials on their menus and customers are starting to take notice.
The 765,225 pounds of rockfish landed included only four Chinook salmon and no catches of green sturgeon or eulachon smelt, both ESA-listed species. Five vessels made 17 trips since the beginning of March.

“Increased catch limits for several key West Coast rockfish stocks offer a lot of opportunity for trawlers, if they can use the right gear and techniques to harvest them,” Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Marine Fisheries Section Manager Maggie Sommer said. “This EFP is a step in that direction. The EFP trips conducted so far have brought in good catches of midwater rockfish, with low bycatch, showing promise for a revitalized, clean midwater fishery.”
For Oregon Trawl Commission Director Brad Pettinger, the success of a midwater rockfish fishery — something common when he was fishing more than 20 years ago — is a validation of sacrifices made since 2000.

“We’re on the verge of placing the last piece of the puzzle to rebuilding this fishery,” Pettinger said, noting the trawl industry has gone through a vessel and permit buyback, gotten MSC certification and transitioned to catch shares rationalization. “It’s been a lot of work over the last decade-plus.”

Photo Credit: Scott Malvitch, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife

Reprinted with permission from SEAFOODNEWS.COM