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.
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.
On a recent morning, rain pelted black seawater as a seal swam nearby. In the biting cold, three fishermen prepared for their last trip to sea on the Pacific Sun IV, which was bought out.
"None of the hired people are very happy about it," says skipper Rob Seitz, inviting his visitors into the cabin, for fresh-ground coffee. The father of four managed to find another boat to work on, and he's taking his two crew members with him. "But I'm one of the lucky ones," he says.
An estimated 300 skippers and deckhands will be out of work in Oregon, Washington, and California. Chris Wallin, the maintenance person on Bob Finzer's boats, will compete for new work with some 30 other jobless deckhands in Astoria.
Fish-processing plants up and down the coast are bracing for the impact, since their steady supply of fish will drop, at least for now.
"The short-term impacts on some of our plants are severe," says Craig Urness, spokesman for Pacific Coast Seafoods, one of the largest seafood processors on the West coast. The company faces job cuts in several of its northern California plants - cuts that will be averted only if it can convince some fishermen to move south and make up the shortfall.
For Milton Grulke, who kept his boat and license, the benefits can't come too soon. Deep in debt, he can't afford the $1,700 monthly maintenance fees to a shipyard, so he does his own repairs. He can no longer afford to hire more than one deckhand, so he goes out on the six-day, round-the-clock fishing trips two or three times a month. "At least it's something," Mr. Grulke says of the buyout. "Hopefully it's in the right direction."
In the Northeast, the New England Fishery Management Council approved the plan of a coalition of Gloucester-based fishermen to offset reduced time at sea by adding days on which they could target only healthier stocks. Still, the plan will not necessarily reverse decades of decline that have thinned bait and ice shops along the coastal harbors: More fishermen are expected to be forced out of business, especially in Maine.
This week in Peabody, Mass., the advisory panel considered alternatives ways to reduce fishing. The council - an advisory board to the federal National Marine Fisheries Services composed of industry representatives, scientists, and environmentalists - was set to vote on details before submitting the plan to federal regulators. Environmentalists say it doesn't do enough to stop overfishing of threatened species of cod and yellow-tail flounder.
"We've got some real concerns," says Priscilla Brooks, of the Conservation Law Fund, a Boston-based environmental law group that helped bring the original lawsuit.
But it's welcomed by Gloucester fishermen like Russell Sherman who has seen the numbers of days he can fish decline by 65 percent in the last two years - leaving him worried that he'd be out of business come spring time. "I will keep going," Mr. Sherman said after the vote in Peabody.
Sherman, who's fished commercially for 31 years, bought a $450,000 boat in 2001 - just before the judge's ruling - and has struggled ever since to break even and pay his three employees. "we're squeaking by," he says.
The ruddy-faced fisherman says he felt he was entering a funeral when he came to the Fishery Council meeting. "Fishing is not just a means of earning an income," he says. "It's a way of life. If we don't get our proper allotment of days at sea, it will cease."
For him, the plan was the only chance at survival. "It will give us an opportunity to be creative," he says. So he was pleased it passed - but still wary. "The devil's in the details," he said at the meeting.
Like Sherman, many fisherman cling to the seafaring life - despite its ebbing tides. "It's the last frontier," says Grulke. "When you go out in your 'office' there, you see the beauty of the ocean," he says, describing dolphins, squid, sharks, whales, and soaring shorebirds. "It's amazing."
• Lane Hartill contributed to this report.