By PATRICIA LEIGH BROWN JULY 6, 2014
MORRO BAY, Calif. — Anyone seeking to learn about the fishing heritage of this port city, named for the huge rock that dominates its harbor, need only amble over to the “Liar’s Bench,” a sitting area along the Embarcadero for fishermen prone to telling tall tales. Or one could visit the Morro Bay Hookers, a thriving fraternity of fish-baiters who skewer anchovies and sardines onto hooks for a living, some 400 hooks per line.
Although this city of 10,370 has become a haven for retirees and tourists, commercial fishing remains Morro Bay’s symbolic heart and a mainstay of its economy. Ever since the commercial fishery was declared a federal economic disaster in 2000, fishermen in this coastal community of lazuline waters midway between Los Angeles and San Francisco have fought to hang on to their historic livelihood.
Faced with increased competition from corporate fish processors in bigger ports, fishermen here have joined forces with scientists and civic leaders to determine their own fate. In June, Morro Bay became the first community on the West Coast to do what their brethren in Cape Cod have already done: set up a community quota fund meant to give small-scale fishermen more equal footing with big-time operators.
Quota is the amount of a particular species of fish that can be caught in a geographic area, and quota rights can be expensive, with larger fishing companies easily able to squeeze out mom-and-pop fishermen. To solve that problem, the Morro Bay Community Quota Fund was established with fishing rights worth about $2 million for roughly 90 species; individual fishermen lease rights from the fund.
With Americans eating most of their seafood from foreign waters, quota funds are an effort to keep fishermen near their home fishing grounds. The idea, which is also being adopted by Monterey and Fort Bragg up the coast, is to make fishing financially viable and accessible to a younger generation.
“There is an implicit long-term value of having fishing in the community,” said Paul Parker, director of the Cape Cod Fisheries Trust, a pioneer of the concept in the United States. “It’s about saving maritime fishing heritage, just like saving small family farms in places like upstate New York and Vermont.”
The funds are a response to a federal management policy started in 2011 that allocates fishing rights for individual species. In essence, the new system created property rights for fishermen that can be bought, sold or traded depending on a fisherman’s desired catch.But as fishing rights have become a salable commodity, dealt through specialized commercial fishing brokers, small ports like Morro Bay have become increasingly concerned that quota assigned to local vessels could leave the community. The fear is that, little by little, boat by boat, the port’s historic fishing heritage could be gobbled up by the highest bidder, with fishing rights consolidated into larger vessels in ports with mightier market power than Morro Bay.
That is where the community quota fund comes in.
At the dock the other day, Rob Seitz, 47, one of the first fishermen to take advantage of the fund and now its president, was unloading rockfish, the signature fish of Morro Bay. Some 70 rockfish species flourish along the Pacific coast, many bearing moblike monikers like rougheye, thornyhead, sharpchin and shortraker.
Mr. Seitz, a father of four, grew up fishing in Alaska. Although he skippered boats for 13 years in Astoria, Ore., a major port with two large industrial processing facilities, he did not own the vessels he worked on, and once lost his job when one of the boats was sold. “What it showed me was that without ownership, I had no stability,” he said.
He stuck it out, eventually hearing about a boat for sale in Morro Bay. To buy it, he said, he needed a loan, and to qualify for a loan, he needed access to affordable quota. “I’m not in the tax bracket where I can have boats for fun,” he said. “For a fisherman, a boat’s no good unless you have the fish to catch with it.”
The Morro Bay fund’s fishing rights were originally owned by the Nature Conservancy, which nine years ago started buying up the permits and boats of beleaguered fishermen wanting out of the business. “We realized we had to work with fishermen to achieve conservation,” said Michael Bell, the director of the conservancy’s California Coastal and Marine Program. “That was a big experiment for us.”
Together, the conservancy, fishermen and scientists began exploring ways to harvest groundfish sustainably, using gear such as hook and line and traps to replace bottom trawling, a practice that devastates the marine environment and indiscriminately kills large numbers of nontargeted species, known as bycatch. Half the income from the new Morro Bay Community Quota Fund will be used for further research into sustainable fishing practices.
The goal of the fund is to make quota more affordable by leasing it, which is cheaper than buying. Mr. Seitz, for instance, leases quota for 12 cents a pound for the right to catch 100,000 pounds of petrale sole a year, for a total of $12,000. If he bought quota on the open market, he said, he would pay 50 to 60 cents a pound, or $50,000 to $60,000, with no guarantee that the price would not skyrocket the next year.
“It’s not a magic bullet,” Dean E. Wendt, a biologist with the Center for Coastal Marine Sciences at California Polytechnic State University in nearby San Luis Obispo, said of the quota fund. “But it helps solve a critical problem: small communities over time losing fishing as a practice.”
The city’s concern about losing its fishing rights to larger entities is not unfounded, industry experts say. In Alaska, about half the quota for halibut and sablefish in isolated rural villages has been sold to fishermen in larger communities with bigger fleets, said Linda Behnken, who fishes commercially and is executive director of the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association. “The positive side is that it eliminates overharvesting,” she said of the quota system. “But it has had a huge socioeconomic impact.”
At the dock in Morro Bay on a recent evening, the topic of the hour was not quota but a spectacular killing — specifically, a young gray whale savaged by a pod of orcas — within eyeshot of multiple witnesses.
Joseph Conchelos, a 31-year-old fisherman, had just returned from a two-day trip, docking his vessel by the city’s homey harbor headquarters, where a list of “Notable California Tsunamis” and “Wanted” posters for stolen vessels are prominently displayed.
Mr. Conchelos, a fisherman’s son, served in the Army in Iraq and was wounded by shrapnel. (“I zigged when I should have zagged,” he explained.) What kept him going during his three surgical operations, he said, was the prospect of “soaking a line.” The day he got home, he went tuna fishing.
Although not yet part of the quota fund, he is proud of the freshness of his local catch, showing off a California king salmon with nary a nick on its glistening scales.
Like many fishermen here, he is hardly fazed by gale warnings and other hardships of the fishing life. “I get to see whales, sea lions and awesome pieces of coastline,” Mr. Conchelos said of his job. “I get to do things and see things on a daily basis that people don’t see in their whole lives.”