HALF MOON BAY, Calif. — After one of the West Coast’s most valuable commercial fisheries was declared an economic disaster in 2000, California and other Pacific states saw more boats being sold and more fishermen looking for work.
But federal statistics show the first signs of a comeback among these so-called groundfish fishermen — those who ply deep waters for dozens of different species that fall under the “groundfish" label, such as sablefish, rockfish and thornyheads.
Conservation efforts and a 2-year-old contentious quota system called “catch shares" appear to be helping, and fishermen who were losing money in the once-lucrative fishery are in the black again, according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration data.
Some fishermen initially skeptical of the stricter government oversight say they’re now seeing the long-term benefits of this approach — and hard-hit fishing towns are seeing signs of recovery.
“When the disaster declaration came on line, for several years after that, this fishery was in a very bad situation," Frank Lockhart of the National Marine Fisheries Service said. “A lot of people were losing money, and on average, the fleet as a whole was losing money.
“What it looks like now, in 2011, the first year of catch shares, they were able to turn that around, and more people are making more money."
Overall, regulators reported the West Coast groundfish fishery yielded $54 million in 2011; the average for the previous five years was $38 million. West Coast fishermen typically catch 10 percent to 21 percent of all U.S.-landed groundfish, a haul comprised of high-value sablefish and Pacific cod.
Still, there are worries in some corners that the program in the long run will benefit big operations over small, family-run fishing businesses.
Catch-shares set an overall cap on the number of fish that can be caught in an area without devastating the fishery. That number is then divided into individual quotas for each fisherman or company. The rules are enforced by an observer on each boat who keeps close tabs on what is being caught.
The system is new to the West Coast but is in use in more than 200 fisheries in 30 countries.
Before catch shares, commercial groundfishing was more of a free-for-all: Officials set dates for when fish could be caught, then let the fleet catch as much as possible, as fast as possible. Monitoring was far less obtrusive, but the result often was more dead fish caught unintentionally being thrown overboard so fishermen didn’t get fined at the dock.
Under the new program, fishermen can catch their quota anytime during the year, giving them more control over costs and labor and less incentive to cheat.
In 2000, after two decades of sharp growth in West Coast groundfishing, several species of rockfish plummeted and the federal government declared the fishery a disaster. The cause is generally believed to be a mixture of overfishing, natural conditions and management mistakes.
Standing near his boat, the 55-foot Mariah Lee at Pillar Point Harbor near Half Moon Bay, captain Geoff Bettencourt said he and many other fishermen originally were skeptical about more government oversight.
But the program so far has given him and other fishers a better dialogue with government regulators, and more optimism that the resources they rely on to make a living will be around for the next generation.
“The previous type of fishing wasn’t a sustainable way to fish," said Bettencourt, a black cod fisherman. “If we kept going that way, we weren’t going to exist years from now."
Another big change under catch shares is that quotas also are set for the amount of fish caught unintentionally — a major problem under the old system. Fishermen’s nets would bring in fish they weren’t supposed to catch, so they often would throw the dead fish over to avoid receiving government penalties at the docks.
“Now, every single pound of fish — no matter what it is — is accounted for," Bettencourt said. “There’s no hiding anything."
Under catch shares, government figures show unintentional catches of some species have been reduced by 80 percent or more in both 2011 and 2012.