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January 09, 2006

Hybrid Group Works to Balance Fisheries While Preserving Species

We're interested in fishing harmoniously with the best marine science available'

The advocacy group was started by a few fixed-gear fishermen, frustrated by the increasing number of species listed as overfished.

But instead of gathering together a group of like-minded fixed-gear fishermen, its members branched out. They brought in a community development expert, a conservationist, marine scientists, trollers and trawlers and long-line fishermen.

Then they went to a number of major funders, recalls Caroline Gibson, and said, "We have this really novel idea of doing conservation a different way."

The result was the Pacific Marine Conservation Council, which the founders based in Astoria to be close to fishing communities.

"It's always been about fisheries and keeping people fishing," said Gibson, PMCC's communication director. The group aims for healthy fishing stocks, and with that healthy economies in fishing communities, taking on problems members think they can solve with the consensus of its diverse board of directors.

That range of voices helped the organization survive the leaner funding years after the burst of the dot-com bubble, and led to an audience with the federal and state agencies that regulate fisheries and the ocean environment, Gibson said.

"I think the reason we've gained a lot of respect with a lot of different agencies is because we have the conservation, the fishing and the science," she said. "It's unusual to have all those on our side."

"We're the hybrid group; we're the conservation group that involves fishermen," said Peter Huhtala, PMCC's senior policy director. "We think of fishermen as part of the marine environment." He acknowledged, though, that the organization doesn't represent all fishermen or all fishing sectors.

While Huhtala said the group serves at a crossroads of environmentalists and fishermen, this isn't a universally held idea.

"They're an environmental group in my mind," said Brad Pettinger, administrator of the Oregon Trawl Commission. "They're certainly better than a lot of them because there are some recreational and commercial fishermen in there." He added, however, that he doesn't think the fishing influence is strong in the organization, that it has more of an environmental slant.

"I have a pretty good rapport with them for the most part. I don't necessarily agree with them."

An eye on bycatch

The fishermen who started PMCC were primarily bringing in rockfish, species in a decline at the time. So for one of its first endeavors, the group held a forum on rockfish in partnership with the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California.

"If we could solve the rockfish problem, we could go a long way to solving a lot of the fishing problems," Huhtala said. What came out of the forum, he said, was a consensus that the numbers of fish caught weren't being counted accurately, and neither were the numbers of fish caught accidentally and discarded while fishing for other species, called bycatch.

This highlighted a need for an observer program, Huhtala said, where scientists would go on boats and collect information on catch and discard numbers. So the group worked with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which set up a program in 2001.

"It was not the most popular thing we did, but we really felt the basic thing of counting fish was vital," Huhtala said. If bycatch rates for the most threatened species, like canary and yelloweye rockfish, can be reduced, fishermen can fish for longer periods and catch more of other species. And so the Pacific Fisheries Management Council, which oversees fishing along the West Coast, started basing management decisions on total fish mortality, instead of just fish brought back to the docks, Huhtala said.

Around the same time as this program, in 2000, PMCC sued the U.S. Secretary of Commerce for not effectively monitoring the catch and bycatch rates. The group won the lawsuit, and NOAA came up with a bycatch environmental impact statement for groundfish; Huhtala was on the oversight committee.

"We're working within the system to help solve the problem we highlighted," he said, adding that the agency maintained good relations with NOAA, part of the Department of Commerce, even during the lawsuit.

The fishery management council adopted one of the alternatives outlined in the environmental impact statement, and in 2005 amended the fisheries management plan to include the program. The next step is to develop an action plan.

"This process moves pretty slow, and it's frustrating in both parts of our mission," Huhtala said. "The failure to act now, or sooner than now, is hurting the environment, and by failing to act to reduce bycatch, that hurts the economies of coastal towns."

Strengthening fishing communities

PMCC has tackled other fishing-related issues in its history, promoting collaborative research with the Web site (www.fishresearchwest.org), supporting programs to strengthen historic fishing communities, conducting extensive interviews with fishermen for a report on the effects and impacts of a depth-based fishing closure, and advocating for other issues.

The organization is funded by foundations including the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the Regional Marine Conservation Project and other foundations, many of which focus on environmental issues, as well as individual donations. Occasionally funds come from contract services for governmental agencies.

The issues that PMCC focuses on are hammered out by the staff and board members, who go over which bills might be coming before Congress, issues being talked about by environmentalists and the fishing fleet, and decide which policy directions PMCC should take.

"The goal is to solve problems, not just to sit and talk about them," Gibson said, so the group selects the issues it will take on carefully. And it all comes back to how people can protect fish stocks, while still keep fishing, she said.

Strategies and policies are written, "with great difficulty and a lot of time," by synthesizing all the science-based information available, Gibson said; facts contributed from the varied people on PMCC's board are necessary in dealing with the politics of fish and fishing.

"That has been the problem of the smaller boat fishermen, a lot of environmental advocates," she said. "People have a lot of passion, but they don't have the facts straight."Two key issues

PMCC will keep gathering facts and advocating on different issues in the future. Two big studies of the oceans, from the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy Pew Oceans Commission, were recently released with recommendations for ocean management. PMCC will work to help implement some of those recommendations, Gibson said. They'll also focus on the reauthorization of the federal Magnuson-Stevenson Fishery Conservation and Management Act, to make sure that fishing management will continue to include input from the fishing community, and will take ecosystem-based approaches into account.

The group will also stay involved in the individual fishing quota (IFQ) debate, Huhtala said. Under IFQs, participating fishing boats and sometimes processors are allocated a certain percentage of the available catch; PMCC is working to make sure that there isn't too much consolidation of the industry and that if the public resource is divided up like that, the public gets benefits as well, such as better environmental protections, Huhtala said.

"We're interested in fishing harmoniously with the best marine science available."