By Neil Farrell
After nearly a year, Morro Bay’s experiment into the community anchoring fishing rights is catching on, and the non-profit organization that owns and administers the deep water groundfish fishery quota has grand plans for the future.
The concept is to keep the fishing, landing and processing local to benefit the environment, fishermen and in turn community at large.
Andrea Lueker, the director of the Morro Bay Community Quota Fund, said in 2014 they had four fishermen leasing parts of the local quota of groundfish — sablefish, petrale sole and other species — not a bad start for an organization that’s barely 2-years old and a broader set of regulations that were enacted in 2011 — the West Coast Groundfish “catch share” program.
The Morro Bay Community Quota Fund incorporated in March 2013, she explained, with the goal of taking over the management of local fishing rights or quota – which is part of a new catch shares program quota set up by the federal government for the entire West Coast groundfish fishery.
The Nature Conservancy bought up six of the boats and fishing permits back in the mid-2000s, during a time when the fishery was in a state of collapse and had been declared a disaster. Groundfish, which is a year around fishery had been thetown’s most productive if not always lucrative fishery.
TNC held the permits and thus got the quota when the Pacific Fisheries Management Council (PFMC) and NOAA adopted the controversial system to regulate and try and save the industry.
Quota shares are completely transferable and can be quite valuable and the worry for communities like Morro Bay has always been that that large, corporate boats would buy up the quotas, come here, catch the fish and then land them elsewhere. So the whole idea of creating a “locally” controlled quota was a way to help keep the local docks busy.
The Quota Fund took out a loan to buy TNC’s quota for Central Coast waters and the environmental organization as of last May is now out of the fishing business in these parts.
“The TNC still owns some quota share of their own,” Lueker said, “However, theydo not have a seat on our board of directors. We purchased some of their quota and now solely own that quota.”
Lueker said TNC did discount its asking price, valued at $1.5-$2 million, in exchange for including in the bylaws such objectives as avoiding overfished species, allocating quota locally first, prioritizing allocation to selective lower impact gear, such as hook and line and trap or similar lower-impact gear understanding that diversification of gear types improves a port’s flexibility and recognizing that some species can only be caught by trawl.
In reference to trawl, Lueker mentioned a recent study published that looks at the effects of trawl on sandy seafloors, which when studied showed little lasting damage. The four fishermen who used the quota in 2014 were Bill Blue, Rob Seitz, David Rose and Joe Conchelos. Seitz, who has the old CFV South Bay, is trawling. There’s more quota available if anyone else wants to get into it.
“We have five permits and we’re only using two to three at this time,” said Lueker. The quota would be open to a Port San Luis fisherman, and other regional fishermen as well. “We have the quota traditionally held in this area. If a Port San Luis fisherman or regional fishermen was interested they can apply.” The program that’s been set up is unusual in a couple of ways.
“What’s unusual here is that we put into the bylaws to set aside money for scientific research, and have a scientific advisory committee” made up of some of the governing board members.
They released a request for proposals (RFP) in February with a due date of May 1 to organizations, or even individuals, to tap part of their available $15,000. They are looking for someone who might have a project in mind who’s unlikely to get money somewhere else. There may also be an opportunity to use this funding with other grant sources, including potentially a partnership between Monterey/Moss Landing, Half Moon Bay and Ft. Bragg fishermen — all areas that are currently in various stages of setting up their own Community Quota Fund programs
They have also set aside some funding for“social programs.” Lueker said they hadn’t yet figured out how that money would be spent but have a few ideas. One would be a funding program to encourage younger men and women to become fishermen. “There’s no parameters yet,” she said, “our priority was getting the science advisory committee’s work started, but we could help out a new entrant with gear or something to help them get started. This is an expensive fishery.” They will also work on some community education, she added.
Fishing within a catch shares/quota system is tricky. Fishermen participating have to count the fish, and pray they don’t catch something that’s prohibited, protected or even one fish over the quota’s tonnage limit.
“The Quota Fund owns about 4 million pounds overall,” Lueker said. That tonnage is divided by species and then further divided amongst the fishermen, who lease the quota, paying back into the Quota Fund for its annual budget of about $125,000. Lueker was a volunteer since shortly after losing her city manager job in late 2013, until last July, when she was hired on part time. She looks rested and comfortable in her new role.
Dwayne Oberhoff who owns Ecological Asset Management, also works for the Quota Fund and manages the vessel accounts through National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS),“basically, “moving fish into fishermen’s vessel accounts. There are rules on how much quota they can have,” Lueker explained. “As we get more fishermen we’ll need more quota.” Fishermen could also have outside quotas if they had allocations already or bought them somewhere. Most fishermen work more than one fishery too, and Lueker said just the South Bay is full time trawling.
The future of catch shares, which fishermen fought against tooth and nail, is about as steady as a boat in high winds, as the annual quotas pounds vary each year and many of the fishing regulations and rules are under the control of the Pacific Fisheries Management Council and/or NMFS.
“We got a positive response from PFMC when we introduced the ourselves and the Quota Fund at their November 2014 Council meeting in Costa Mesa,” Lueker said, also attending that meeting were Quota Fund Secretary Rick Algert, Board member Jeremiah O’Brien and Chris Kubiak. “In the future we hope to address some regulatory limitations on how much quota our local organization can hold and manage, which could mean more fish to the Quota Fund and in turn to our fishermen. “We’re very interested in that.”
The catch is something called the “control rule” that limits how much any one entity can own and so presents a real sticking point for growth, Lueker said. “But it keeps the big corporations from monopolizing/owning all the quota.
“We’ll continue to tweak things with the Quota Fund, though it is going well,” she added. “The operations and management might change some, but it’s been interesting starting something from scratch.”