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Radical hope for saving ocean fisheries – Megan Molteni – Aeon
"The good catch: Hope for the world's devastated oceans rests on a change in the hearts of the fishermen that know them best"



"‘Used to be, the first three days I would stay awake straight,’ he tells me, wincing slightly and running a hand through his thick, greying hair. ‘But I just can’t do that anymore.’

Nor does he have to. For Seitz and a handful of other fishermen in California, the testosterone-frenzied, fish-till-you-drop lifestyle is becoming a thing of the past. This is no accident. Rather, it is the deliberate work of old enemies who have teamed up in the face of environmental tragedy to chart a new course in collaborative resource management. If the venture is successful, it could not only revolutionise the way the American fishing fleet does business: it might forever alter the way we think about our planet’s last great frontier."



"The modernisation of the world’s fishing fleets was good for fishermen, but it was very bad for fish. Looking back at historical catch data, scientists estimate that the marine biomass of open-ocean communities declined by 80 per cent within 15 years of industrialised exploitation. The ocean has lost more than 90 per cent of its large predatory fishes — iconic species such as the bluefin tuna, the Atlantic cod, and the Pacific halibut.

How did this happen in less than a century? The simple answer is hubris. The notion that we could take and take from the seemingly limitless bounty of the sea without consequences has permeated everything from governmental policy to management efforts to fishing culture for decades. You see it in the government-subsidised expansion of the US fishing fleet despite falling catch rates; in modern management strategies that enabled fishermen to catch as much as possible in a given time frame; in a supply chain that encourages opacity and deceit at every stage. However, the more complicated answer is that we have managed (and mismanaged) economic incentives, consumer markets, scientific data, environmental policy and, above all, individual accountability. Fishermen get much of the blame for the state in which we find ourselves — this ‘race to the last fish’ — but they didn’t build this system by themselves. They are, however, the ones with the power to change it.

When Rob Seitz was growing up in Fairbanks, Alaska, he didn’t play sports or do much studying. Instead, he’d spend weeknights and weekends out at sea with his grandfather, fishing for salmon and halibut. In 1988, he took up fishing full-time. The next year, the Exxon Valdez ran aground in Prince William Sound, spilling 11 million gallons of crude oil into Alaska’s icy waters. The disaster shut down the salmon fishery, and over the next decade Seitz was forced to cobble together a living in less lucrative fisheries. By the time things recovered, aquaculture (or fish farming) had come to the US, and in 2000 prices for salmon plummeted. That was the end of Seitz’s fishing career in Alaska. He drifted south, eventually landing in Astoria, Oregon, a fishing port perched at the mouth of the Columbia River, and home to the third-largest fish processor in the world.

That same year, 750 miles further south, California’s Morro Bay fishery was officially declared a federal disaster. Like so many ports along America’s coastline, Morro Bay had seen the advent of enormous trawlers that destroyed local marine wildlife in just a few decades. Between 1986 and 2000, fish landings and economic revenue in Morro Bay fell by more than 80 per cent. This was emblematic of fisheries the world over — starting in 1988, global catch estimates show a steady decline of more than 300,000 tons per year. In Morro Bay, a common story began to unfold. Stocks collapsed. Processors left town. Regulators stepped in. The Pacific Fishery Management Council and the National Marine Fisheries Service spent $30 million to buy out fishermen who were willing to get out of the business — about 40 per cent of the town’s fleet. By 2002, the remaining fishermen were getting desperate. That year, under pressure from a federal mandate, the regulators announced they would be making large closures up and down the California coast, to protect fish habitat and prohibit trawling. While the size of the closure was to be dictated by regulatory agencies, the exact boundaries were open to public input. And this was where the nation’s largest environmental group — the Nature Conservancy — saw an opportunity to step in.

The conservancy quickly realised that, to establish the right boundaries for the closures, it would have to go to the very people who were fighting to keep the fishing grounds open. ‘What the fishermen had was a deep local knowledge of the habitats of certain species,’ Michael Bell, a senior project director with the conservancy, told The New York Times in November 2011. ‘There wasn’t scientific information at that level that could match the fisherman knowledge.’

So Bell went to the fishermen of Morro Bay to ask for help. The proposition was this: either work with us, sharing your knowledge to create a proposal for the new closures — of which we’ll help mitigate the financial burdens — or don’t, and let the regulators put the lines wherever they want.

Fishermen were torn. To work with environmentalists would mean allegations of ‘sleeping with the enemy’ from friends and colleagues. On the other hand, any other economic opportunities had left town with the processing plants. Eventually, out of the 23 permit-holders approached, 13 fishermen volunteered to sell their permits and six of those also sold their boats to the conservancy. Other fishermen began sharing their knowledge of areas needing protection for breeding grounds and juvenile fish habitat. ‘They realised this was a chance for them to shape their destiny a bit,’ said Bell. And so, together, the conservancy and the fishermen came to the council with a plan for the closures.

By 2006, this unlikely partnership had resulted in the creation of 3.8 million acres of protected fish habitat — all of it off-limits to trawling, and with stricter regulations for other kinds of fishing. It also made the conservancy the second-largest fishing permit-holder on the west coast — unprecedented for an environmental group. For decades, the typical dynamic in US fisheries consisted of fishermen pushing the limits of what scientists said was sustainable, management agencies not doing enough, and environmentalists filing lawsuits. This didn’t do much for how environmentalists and fishermen felt about each other. The conservancy’s move changed everything. Other environmental groups had bought boats and licences in order to retire them and relieve pressure on fish stocks, but no other conservation group had become a significant stakeholder in the fishing industry. ‘Before that, we had an advocacy role only,’ said Bell, ‘and now we were at the table with assets.’

But what to do with those assets? The conservancy wanted to find a fishery model based on collaboration, which would work for both the environment and economics — a model that would break from the practices that caused the decline in the first place. Rather than taking boats and permits out of action, they decided to lease some back, provided fishermen agreed to new sustainable practices. These included switching gear to traps and hook-and-line, updating catch-reporting technology, and sharing that information with the conservancy for research and monitoring purposes. Those fishermen who agreed to the new conditions got a special exempted permit to fish Morro Bay’s waters.

The plan wasn’t popular with everyone. ‘Fishing was our heritage,’ Andrea Lueker, then assistant City Manager, told me. ‘And we were very concerned we were going to lose fishing in Morro Bay.’ The conservancy realised that in order to get the full support of a city built on trawl fishing, they would have to resurrect the trawl fleet. They had the boats, but no one to captain them by their rules. They needed new blood.

Back in Oregon, Rob Seitz was having something of an existential crisis. After six years of gruelling work aboard crabbing boats, tuna boats, salmon boats and anyone else who would take him, he had his first captain’s job. He also had a wife and four kids. Seitz found himself wishing he were going to his kids’ football games rather than getting his butt kicked for a few more pounds of crab. But if he weren’t out there, someone else would be. And that meant money in someone else’s wallet instead of on his mortgage. He felt trapped. And he worried about the kind of legacy he was leaving his children.

Then one day, he picked a book of home remedies off his in-laws’ coffee table and flipped to the chapter titled ‘midlife crisis’. Inside, he found a passage from Carl Jung: it said that when you’re young you separate yourself from society so that you can go out and create value for your own life, but once you have children there is a desire to return to society, to meet social goals rather than personal ones. Seitz was intrigued and sought out more of Jung’s work, until one day the message became clear: life isn’t about personal gain, it’s about trying to make the world a better place in which your young can grow up. The revelation brought relief.

‘I realised that all this time I’d been thinking, “I’m a victim.” Things happened to me and all I did was complain about it,’ Seitz said. He didn’t want to suffer at the hands of a broken system any longer: he wanted to change it and himself. So when he heard that Morro Bay was looking for a trawler, he jumped at the opportunity. It was a chance to build up a whole new system that rewarded fishermen for making sustainable choices.

As Seitz was moving his family south, further monumental changes were hitting the California’s Central Coast. At the beginning of 2011, the Pacific Fishery Management Council switched … [more]
fishing  oregon  california  policy  2013  us  meganmolteni  morrobay  astoria  alaska  pacificcoast  robseitz  collaboration  environment  sustainability  nature  natureconservancy  commercialfishing 
july 2014 by robertogreco

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