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Creating Conservation Success Stories on the Working Waterfront

November 29, 2018
Kyle Peterson
From the coast of Oregon to the ports of Indonesia, sustainability isn’t just a catch phrase. It’s the key to healthy oceans and healthy fisheries.

At the depth of the crisis in America’s fishing industry two decades ago, Oregon trawler captain Brad Pettinger faced a moment of reckoning.

Decades of overfishing and poor management had decimated the West Coast groundfish fishery. Fishermen along the coast were racing to catch dwindling fish stocks – creating an economic and environmental crisis that threatened to force him off the water.

“I had a conversation with my wife about our situation and she said, ‘Well, just sell the boats,” Brad recalls. “I remember telling her, ‘Honey, there is no one to buy the boats.’ That’s how bad it got.”

Brad stuck it out and now, 20 years later, he is reaping the benefits not only of his perseverance but also his foresight.

Thanks to the tireless work of people deeply vested in the health of the fishery – boat owners and captains like Brad, scientists, fisheries managers and legislators – the groundfish fishery has made a sharp recovery since it was declared a federal disaster in 2000.

Stocks have rebounded. Coastal fishing communities buildings have added jobs and created new opportunities for residents.

Kyle Peterson talks in Astoria, Ore. with trawler captain Brad Pettinger about the recovery in the Pacific groundfish fishery.

I met Brad during a recent visit with the foundation’s Environment Committee to the port city of Astoria, Oregon, a historic hub for fishermen hauling in catches of groundfish, salmon, crab, tuna, sardines, whitefish and tuna.

For more than a decade, through our Oceans initiative, the foundation has to sought help the West Coast groundfish fishery by supporting national policy reforms to improve ocean health and working with other foundations to create conditions that enable fishermen to fish smarter, not harder.

On docks lined with trawlers, in thriving fish processing plants and in restaurants serving local seafood, I heard the story of a recovery built on sound science, accountability and a rights-based management system that invested fishermen in the ecological health of their resource.

The turnaround took hold with the reauthorization of federal fisheries law – the Magnuson-Stevens Act. It requires that fisheries managers base decisions on sound science, that they consult with stakeholders and that they work with fishing communities to provide secure fishing rights that work for their fisheries and communities.

For fishermen, the ‘catch-share’ system provided greater incentive to fish sustainably because their quotas grew as populations did.

Magnuson-Stevens also spurred accountability, prompting fisheries managers to station scientific observers on every fishing vessel to monitor catch, assess overall stocks and prevent bycatch, the landing and discarding of unwanted species.

The reforms have worked. Last year, groundfish landings on the West Coast were the highest they’ve been since 1981, when data was first reported.

Over the past six years, groundfish fishery revenues jumped more than 20%. Landings in Astoria alone were worth $40 million.

Today, 100% of the groundfish fishery is monitored either electronically or by observers – up from about 20% in 2011.

Because of that strict monitoring, no harvests have exceeded fleet-wide limits. Of the more than 90 species of groundfish, the number of species considered overfished has been reduced by more than 70%, and the remainder are well on their way to being fully rebuilt. In 2014, the Marine Stewardship Council certified the 13 major target stocks in the fishery, a coveted designation that drives demand among consumers seeking sustainable seafood.

A commercial fishing trawler heads out on the water at Astoria, Oregon.

“This is a marathon, not a sprint,” says Brad, one of the architects of the groundfish recovery, who served 15 years as director of the Oregon Trawl Commission and last year was appointed to the Pacific Fisheries Management Council, the governing body that establishes catch limits.

“For the most part, fishing is better than I’ve ever seen it since I began participating in the groundfish fishery in 1982.”

Because of the conservation successes we’ve seen in the U.S. industry, we know that sustainable fishing policy can transform the health of other threatened fisheries around the world.

After I left Astoria, I traveled across the Pacific to Indonesia, where sustainable fishing reforms hold enormous potential to improve the environment and the economies of communities that depend on the sea for their survival.

The foundation has identified Indonesia as one of the priority countries for our work to improve ocean health and end overfishing, because of its global significance. After China, Indonesia is the second largest fish producer in the world.

The country’s waters are also a major hot spot of marine biodiversity, with the most coral and fish diversity in the world. Unfortunately, that natural abundance has led to a massive increase in fishing effort across the 17,000 island nation.

Coral trout are among hundreds of species caught in Indonesia's coastal waters.

It’s difficult to understand the complexity of managing Indonesia’s vulnerable fisheries until you see the sheer magnitude of the catch brought in every day to docks and markets like the ones I visited in Lamongan, a city on the east coast of Java.

I spoke with hard-working men and women who catch the fish, haul it ashore and process for domestic and international markets. I was both awed by the challenge and inspired by the opportunity we have to help improve fisheries management in collaboration with our Indonesia partners.

While fisheries management in Indonesia is still in its infancy, the time is ripe for change. The country’s national government – and many of its provincial governments – are embracing the idea that sustainability can lead to prosperity for the 7 million people employed by the industry.

Visiting the fish market on the docks at Lamongan, on the east coast of Java.

There are no quick fixes to the problems plaguing oceans and fisheries in Indonesia, or at home in the U.S.

Even along the Pacific Coast, where the future of fishing is far brighter than it was, challenges remain.

Chief among them is the need to rebuild the industry’s infrastructure and the market for locally-caught seafood, which collapsed along with groundfish fishery at the turn of the century. While cities like Astoria are flourishing, other coastal communities still lack a working waterfront.

I’m buoyed, however, by the optimism of the people who have invested their own future in the health of their industry and the environment.

“Some of my best days have been on the ocean, and some of my worst days have been on the ocean,” says Brad Pettinger. “But I don’t remember the bad days.”

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