“Insurance” for Bycatch Article

“Insurance” for bycatch

Pooling risk eases fear of disaster tows

By Brock Bernstein


When Dave Smith, skipper of the Lisa Melinda out of Newport, OR heads out to fish for whiting, he worries about whether he’ll be going back out the next day. Bycatch caps for four species of rockfish are so tight that a single bad tow can put a boat in the shoreside whiting sector out of commission for the rest of the season. “I have one pound of yelloweye bycatch quota and that’s not even the head of a fish that can weigh 15 pounds,” says Smith. “And I’m not alone—there are a whole bunch of us who have only one or two pounds.”


Welcome to “zero tolerance” management. Fishermen in the shoreside sector have been shut down early in the season when one or two bad tows put them over the bycatch cap for any of four overfished species. But further offshore, fishermen delivering to motherships this year found a way to dodge rockfish bycatch and lessen the chance of a draconian shutdown. How? They embraced a series of sharp-edged rules imposed by their own cooperative.


The rules ban fishing for whiting in nine areas identified as “hot spots” for rockfish and require several other practices, such as short test tows, to minimize bycatch. What’s more, fishermen authorized Sea State, an independent contractor that tracks bycatch in real time, to instantaneously close additional areas when required to avoid bycatch hot spots that might emerge during fishing. Violate the coop rules, and you can face fines, legal action to collect damages, restraining orders, prohibitions against fishing, or other actions the board deems appropriate to enforce the coop’s bycatch agreement.


What’s going on here? This seems like a lot of freedom for skippers to give up. But the risks of getting “hit by lightning” by a single bad tow are high enough that, as Dave Fraser, the coop manager for the whiting mothership sector says, “It’s better to be in a game where risks are being actively managed than out on your own.”


The rules of this new game were established by several amendments to the groundfish fishery management plan, culminating in Amendment 21 in August 2010. This amendment assigned catch shares to participants in the mothership sector based on catch histories of permits within the sector and allowed them to form coops, at one stroke creating the incentives and the regulatory framework for a sector coop to manage both whiting and bycatch quotas. Boats could then either join a coop or remain independent and participate in a derby-style fishery. None of the permit holders were willing to go it alone, so all 37 joined a single cooperative.


As Dave Fraser puts it, the key to the coop’s success is its attempt “to design a cooperative program that provides for individual accountability without giving individual ownership of the constraining bycatch species – the four allocated overfished rockfish species.”  The result works a bit like insurance. The coop pools the entire bycatch quota associated with each permit’s catch history while crafting rules that hold skippers and owners individually accountable for their bycatch performance. Participants retain ownership of their whiting quota but not of their bycatch quota and the bycatch agreement all coop members sign includes a mix of collective risk sharing and individual accountability that is triggered when specific thresholds are crossed.


This seems to be working. The season opened May 15 and by late September the participants were still happy with the results. “We are way ahead of the game in terms of bycatch rate,”said Bob Dooley, one of the mothership skippers. And at least one skipper in the fishery would have been out of business early in the season without the coop’s risk pool to cover his bycatch.


But it’s taking some time to figure out how best to apply the coop’s system of requirements, incentives, and sanctions. The season is divided into four periods.Permit holders must declare (at least 15 days before each period opens) how much of their quota allocation they want to put into that period. The coop then puts an equivalent percentage of the bycatch quota for the four overfished rockfish species into a risk pool for that period.


Things get interesting once bycatch starts to occur. If the boats can catch the entire whiting quota for a period without hitting a bycatch cap, then everyone is home free, regardless of how much bycatch any individual has. But there may be times when the fishery has to shut down when it reaches one of the limiting rockfish caps. When that happens, any individual with more than 125% of their prorated allocation of that rockfish species may be done for the year.


Here’s where it starts to get complicated and the planning becomes challenging. If a boat hits 125% of its prorated bycatch share in period 1, and hasn’t declared its intended catch for subsequent periods, then it is done for the year. It can lease its remaining whiting quota for the year but can’t continue fishing itself. However, if a boat reaches the 125% limit for period 1, but has already declared an intended catch for other periods, then it can fish in those later periods, but will have to leave on the table any whiting quota that remained uncaught in period 1 when the fishery was shut down.


The closures, bycatch rules, and authority to sanction violations seem to have created a system of balanced incentives that is allowing boats to catch their whiting quota while avoiding bycatch problems and fostering individual responsibility. This is complemented by a willingness to share information among skippers. For example, Bob Dooley has collected a set of bycatch avoidance tips from the most experienced skippers and has encouraged skippers to “consult your fellow fishermen” to learn more about best practices and the risks of particular fishing areas. Joe Sullivan, a Seattle lawyer who has participated in the design of several catch share and coop programs, says the key is “rewarding the skippers involved for modifying their view of the world from information hoarding to a more collective, information sharing view.”


The shoreside whiting fleet has no comparable “insurance” from pooled bycatch quota.Instead fishermen own their individual bycatch quotas. Even though about 60% of the inshore whiting quota had been caught by late September and, overall, rockfish bycatch remained below that 60% mark, several boats had been forced to quit fishing because they reached their individual bycatch caps.In principle, tradeable permits allow unlucky fishermen to buy their way back into bycatch compliance. But in reality, those with excess bycatch quota remaining were reluctant to put it on the market.


This appears to reflect a structural disadvantage of individual—as opposed to cooperative—ownership of quota. As Dave Fraser describes it, “everyone is concerned about lightning hitting them” and is reluctant to trade bycatch quota until they have caught their target quota for the year. As a result, the shoreside sector may end up using its bycatch quota less efficiently than the mothership sector. This realization has prompted shoreside fishermen to begin considering creating their own risk pool. “We’re doing this because there is safety in numbers,” says Dave Smith, the skipper from the shoreside fleet.


The coop and its risk pool have eased some of the risk facing vessels in the whiting mothership sector. But the rules and the need to fish as carefully as possible have increased the stress involved. It’s a far cry from Bob Dooley’s recollection of what fishing was like a few decades ago. Still, in a world where one pound of yelloweye can shut him down for the year, he and the other skippers in this sector wouldn’t have it any other way.



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