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On two coasts, big moves to save fish and fishermen

US buys fleets in West, while East adopts new fishing rules.

By Julie Finnin Day, Seth Stern / November 7, 2003


Sweeping initiatives are moving forward on the two coasts that will affect some of the world's most productive fishing grounds and the jobs of thousands of fishermen, from San Diego to Seattle, Bangor to New Bedford.

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Here on the West coast, the US government this week announced a $46-million plan to buy out as much as half the trawler fleet and permanently retire the boats from fishing. The move is intended to help ailing fishermen who have been hurt over the years by ever-stricter quotas placed on catches.

Simultaneously but separately, a regional advisory board took a major step in trying to curb overfishing in the once-fecund waters off New England. Under pressure from a court order, it adopted a plan that would restrict fishing of depleted species, but allow fishermen to divert their nets toward more plentiful stocks. The two initiatives, though different in intent and approach, will affect the livelihood and traditions of a centuries-old industry rooted in dozens of communities along the both coasts.

"Right now we have massive overcapacity," says Andrew Rosenberg, a former regional administrator of the National Marine Fisheries Service. "We have far more fishing power than the stocks can sustain."

The $46 million buyout is a life-changing move for those who live by a struggling industry's changing tides. On the West Coast, owners of 92 boats will be paid an average of $497,000 to permanently remove their vessels from fishing, starting Dec. 5. The plan will cut the West Coast trawler fleet by 50 percent.

Overwhelmingly approved last week by the vested boat owners, the buyout was developed by the industry and government to help stabilize vulnerable coastal economies. The industry has lost tens of millions of dollars in the past five years as federal quotas tightened, protecting the seas from overfishing. In 2000, the government declared an official fishery failure - a catastrophic drop in the fish population. Seven species of groundfish have been designated overfished.

Now, those who stay in their fisheries - a term that refers to a regional habitat and a given species, such as groundfish or crab - could see their catch quotas double, starting next year.

For the fishermen who will leave their boats behind, it's a way to make a graceful exit, one "that wasn't available to them before," says Pete Leipzig, executive director of the Fisherman's Marketing Association, a West Coast trawler-industry group in Eureka, Calif. "This gives them an opportunity to sell their business with dignity and [keep] some part of their life savings intact."

In his 39 years in the fishing business, Bob Finzer has invested more than $4 million in buying six boats - he has two left - and paying for their almost constant maintenance. A single trawl net costs him $30,000.

For most of that time, he made enough to pay his bills, employ a crew of four, and keep the boats in good repair. But in recent years, his income has plummeted due to stricter fishing quotas. "I don't know whether we could [have lasted] another year," he says, standing in the grungy cabin of his 70-foot trawler, the St. Janet, scented by the ubiquitous smell of engine grease and fish.

Now, he says, the future could be very good. "As long as the government don't mess with things - change the quotas - it'll make a real nice fishery," says the fisherman in his orange vinyl overalls.

Like Mr. Finzer, most of the West Coast trawl fishermen have been struggling to stay afloat, often with their entire life savings poured into boats that no one - until now - would buy.

But while the purchase may help Finzer and many others, it is a mixed bag. Unlike previous buyouts, most of the loan ($36 million) must be repaid with interest to the government by the remaining trawl fleet, shrimpers, and crab fishermen over the next 30 years. The number of fishing licenses will be cut permanently from 263 to 174.

In Astoria, Oregon - once a booming timber and tuna town, and still the state's largest fishing community - the new initiative is being greeted with mixed feelings as well.

Astoria was home in the 1980s to 36 canneries, including Bumblebee Tuna. But the public outcry over dolphin safety killed the tuna industry here, sending canneries abroad and putting at least 4,000 people out of work. Now, just a handful of custom canneries remain.