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How Washington can support fishing communities

National Catch Share Policy is guiding how the councils divvy up the allowable catch on fisheries.

Lately, national fisheries policy makers have left local fishing communities hanging.

At issue is how to ensure responsible community-based fishermen — without huge financial backing — remain fishing, as the nation downsizes the number of boats on the water to protect fishing stocks.

Last November, a bi-partisan, bi-coastal, and bicameral group of eight members of Congress wrote a letter to the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), requesting that the agency provide guidance on the implementation of the National Catch Share Policy to the regional councils that manage our nation’s fisheries. The National Catch Share Policy is guiding how the councils divvy up the allowable catch on fisheries across the country — from cod to halibut to West Coast rockfish — among different fishermen.

In most cases, those shares go to boats that historically caught particular fish, but they are tradeable and often end up in the hands of the highest bidder.  The members of Congress asked for agency guidance on options to help local fishing communities adapt to catch share programs, including approaches to implement the community provisions in sections of national fisheries law that would enable fishing communities to form Regional or Community Fishing Associations that would help local fishermen retain fishing access and jobs.

Congressman Mike Thompson (D-CA), who represents California’s 1st Congressional District along the state’s northern coast, reiterated some of this letter in a March 2012 article in Pacific Fishing Magazine, calling for agency guidance on the implementation of the same community provisions and for strategies to consider input from fishing communities at the earliest stages of catch share program development.

NMFS finally issued a response (pdf) to the congressional letter this past March, but unfortunately it is a response with little substance. NMFS points to other activities (for instance, their work on electronic monitoring) that are not relevant to the request for guidance on national fisheries law’s community provisions.

They say they have taken “a number of steps,” but do not describe what those are or will be.  They cite work on community efforts for the Pacific Groundfish Trawl catch share program, but the Pacific Council, which manages Oregon,Washington and California waters, abandoned efforts to set criteria for Community Fishing Associations to participate in that program. They mention the proceedings from a January 2011 Catch Shares & Commercial Fishing Communities Workshop, yet the main outcome there was several clear recommendations to NMFS to provide guidance as to how communities can go about becoming a Regional or Community Fishing Association — guidance that communities are still waiting on.

In the absence of clear agency leadership on this issue, communities are beginning to define what the community provisions supported by national law mean for them.

The Community Fisheries Network was launched last month by Ecotrust, the Island Institute of Rockland, Maine and 13 community fishing and development organizations on both the West and East coasts. Network members have developed standards for the governance of community-based fishing organizations to, in part, enable those communities to qualify to hold catch shares and  maintain community access to fisheries.

The network is also set up to share information among fishermen, fishing communities, scientists and others, in order to improve the stewardship of marine ecosystems, to build up local and regional fishing economies, and to bring renewed energy and vitality to waterfront communities.

Individually, members have taken progressive steps along these lines, whether it’s establishing their own seafood brands, pushing for marine protected areas in local waters or successfully lobbying for small boats and artisanal fishermen in fisheries policy. As these efforts multiply across the nation, community-based fishermen will ensure that catch shares held by communities are a sound, lasting investment in the country’s working waterfronts.

Now it is up to national policy makers to support these communities.