By the year 2000, most of the groundfish that was usually sought by commercial fisheries on the West Coast were completely gone. California’s waterfront restaurants used to serve seafood that came straight from its shores, but for years now it has been imported from places like China. With the help of activists and environmentalists, though, the groundfish are returning.
Before, fish like sand dabs and petrale sole were plentiful, but once they all but disappeared, the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program moved most species of West Coast groundfish on to their red “Avoid” list. By 2005, the nonprofits Oceana and Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) filed a lawsuit against the National Marine Fisheries Service for failing to protect them.
A third-generation fisherman from Monterey, California named Joe Pennisi explains how commercial fishing used to be done. When he was fishing for sand dabs and petrale sole, he still caught large amounts of rockfish; by law, he was required to dump these back in the water, dead. Pennisi explained, “We’d bring in 25,000 pounds of fish in one tow and discard 80 percent of it. It was disgusting.”
In 2011, fisheries had to meet an individual fishing quota (IFQ) system, also known as “Catch Shares.” A total allowable number of fish was decided and shares were divided between large fishing companies. Boats that went trolling for groundfish also had to have an observer aboard who would look after bycatch, which would cost the boat another $500 a day, making it financially prohibitive for smaller fishing vessels.
Many fishermen with multiple generations’ of experience had to quit the business due to environmental concerns, as well as the rules and regulations that kept tightening around them. It got that bad.
Soon after, the Nature Conservancy (TNC) got involved and began buying permits and quota from the fishermen, and though they still had quotas, they worked directly with fishermen.
According to Kate Kaeur, Fisheries Project Director with TNC:
“Once we bought the permits, we realized there was an opportunity to use them on the water. Fishermen can’t take on a lot of risk, but by partnering with us, we could try new models, and partnerships. As well, they could collect data and help us design areas to fish and those to protect.”
Fishermen that were once over-fishing an area became the best resource for conservation. Data was shared up and down the Bay area, and fishermen started avoiding overfished areas.
These practices allowed many species to rebound. Twenty-one species have been upgraded from “avoid” on the Seafood Watch List due to the work of the fishermen and the NTC.
The Los Angeles Times called it a “dramatic turnaround,” as some of the rockfish species rebounded a full 40 years ahead of what had been projected.