Pacific Fishery Management Council faces tough decision on gear-switching allowance

The crew of the F/V Devotion handles a lightweight CodCoil pot filled with live black cod.

Rising black cod prices have required the U.S. Pacific Fishery Management Council to take action to clarify its rules on quota allowances for different styles of fishing.

Disproportionately high prices paid for black cod (also known as sablefish) compared to other groundfish species have resulted in a trend of black cod shares migrating from the trawl sector to fixed-gear operations. Individual fishing quota (IFQ) awarded by the PFMC for the U.S. Pacific non-whiting fleet allows flexibility in the type of gear used, but the council has been asked to take action to preserve the current balance of fishing between trawling and fixed-gear usage.

In 2021, the council began drafting options for action, with input from its sablefish management and trawl allocation attainment committee. Its goal was to limit gear switching to 29 percent of the overall IFQ issued.

But there is no easy fix, according to Michele Conrad, a principal strategist in fisheries policy and management issues with Oceanbeat Consulting, in Olympia, Washington, U.S.A., especially when gear switching had been touted as one of the creative ways to reduce the incidental catch of overfished stocks plaguing the trawl fisheries in the 1990s. In the years of license limitation (1994 to 2000) – the predecessor to the IFQ program – trawlers were put on trip limits and gear and area restrictions. As part of attaining their quotas of target species, volumes of black cod and other species were discarded.

“This is probably one of the toughest decisions that PFMC has had to grapple with,” Conrad said. “I don't believe that the issue itself is complicated, but because it is a market-driven issue and not a regulatory one, there are many variables.”

At its most recent meeting in November, the PFMC began to whittle down its menu of options for which action it will take as it seeks to addressing the growing problem. While the council reached decisions to eliminate setting gear-specific quota pounds and gear-switching permit endorsements with a vessel-based qualifier as options, the council still must decide among three options for change, or the option of keeping the status quo. Those three options include designating a portion of quota shares as eligible to be used by any type of gear; allowing small gear-switching limit overages without incurring a violation; or designating only certain vessels as eligible to switch gear.

Bob Alverson, manager of the Seattle, Washington, U.S.A.-based Fishing Vessel Owners’ Association argued against limiting IFQ use by gear type.

“This is the first time a council has changed the nature of the IFQ as an asset in any council,” he said. “This would take a purchased IFQ and tell that person they could no longer use it as they had purchased it; so with fixed gear on a fixed gear boat the IFQ would be labeled trawl-only. Their value would be cut by 60 to 70 percent if they cannot use it as they purchased it, for pot and longline gear.”

Alverson said that designating the shares to trawl-only could devalue the black cod industry by more than USD 50 million (EUR 47.1 million), and said the council's analysis lacks the rationale proving that limiting the amount of fixed-gear harvest would increase catches by the trawl sector. The Fishing Vessel Owners’ Association and other groups have argued the current issue is a market-driven blip, and that an increase in ex-vessel prices paid for groundfish caught in the West Coast trawl fishery will eventually make the current problem disappear.

“The council’s analysis of the current alternatives to restrict gear switching fail to explain how flounder markets are enhanced and provide more opportunity to trawlers,” the PFMC Groundfish Advisory Subpanel said in a November report. “In fact, during the sablefish management and trawl allocation attainment committee discussions, the staff pointed out that should other flounder markets increase, trawlers would be incentivized to use their sablefish to harvest the other groundfish. In essence, the suggested gear-switching problem would disappear on its own, through natural market forces.”

But with a 2019 sablefish and trawl attainment report finding that average ex-vessel prices for fixed-gear black cod ranged from USD 0.70 to USD 1.13 (EUR 0.66 to EUR 1.06) per pound higher than trawl-delivered fish, the incentive exists for fishers to switch to fixed gear.  

Long-term continuance of ex-vessel price differences between trawl-caught and fixed-gear black cod could eventually lead to the majority of trawl quota share becoming locked into use by fixed-gear vessels, even with trawlers fishing simultaneously for black cod, dover sole, and rockfish requiring black cod shares as a safeguard to allow them to keep towing for their allocated pounds of dover sole. In recent years attainment of the Dover sole harvest allocated to the trawlers averaged a mere 20 percent. Meanwhile, an October 2022 PFMC analysis showed from 2016 to 2019, fixed gear accounted for 32 to 35.3 percent of the northern sablefish allocation.

“I think that the chances are pretty slim that the market demand for dover [sole] will increase to the point that ex-vessel prices for dover will be sufficient to close the price gap on sablefish,” Conrad said.

The other issue thought to encourage increases in gear switching involves quota share leasing prices between black cod, dover sole, and other fish in the trawling mix. According to NOAA’s quota pound price data for 2022, IFQ shares of black cod were trading at USD 0.46 (EUR 0.43) a pound, and there had been 54 trades as of 15 November. Dover sole shares had insufficient data to report any movement, but another common trade species, petrale sole, went for USD 0.25 (EUR 0.24) per pound, with 53 trades during the same period. Just 66 percent of the black cod trawl shares in the leasing market are actually owned by trawlers, according to Alverson.

“The majority of sablefish leased to fixed gear is owned by trawlers that do not have an adequate dover or arrowtooth flounder market,” Alverson said.

Scott Adams, a plant manager with Hallmark Fisheries, in Charleston, Oregon, said another question the PFMC must grapple with is how the market would react if all the black cod quota was caught. Recent studies have shown an increase in black cod biomass along the U.S. West Coast and Alaska, leading to increases in quotas and more pounds available to be distributed to all gear sectors in coming years.

“It just makes the market weaker,” Adams said. “When they increase the quotas, that really affects the market. Everybody’s got fish, and they want to move it before they have to put it in a freezer. When the price drops, some guys sit on it, hoping the market comes up. Eventually the stuff will go, but it will go cheap.”

Council action on the gear switching issue could take years, according to Conrad and Alverson.

“They have had two different industry and council committees, the sablefish management and trawl allocation attainment committee and community advisory board, going on six years of analysis without resolution,” Alverson said.

At its November meeting, the council scheduled a study of the preliminary proposals for its June 2023 meeting, with a vote on final action tentatively scheduled for November 2023. If a decision is reached, it will then go through a review process.

“Given the complexity of the current alternatives, it may be another two years after the final decision before proposed regulatory revisions are ready for review,” says Conrad.

Reporting by Charlie Ess

Photo courtesy of Ryan Johnson


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