How Fishermen And Environmentalists Are Working Together To Save The Oceans

Unless you’re a fisherman yourself, you most likely have never heard of a bottom trawler fisherman. In the fishing industry, this type of fisherman has been quite controversial within the past two decades, but now, they’re making a huge comeback, and helping the environment along the way.

Bottom trawler fishermen are the type of individuals working in the industry who use large nets to capture deep-dwelling fish that typically remain on the ocean floor. These type of fish can include rock fish, Pacific Ocean perch, sole, etc., and this type of fishing is fairly residential to the Pacific Coast. However, twenty years ago bottom trawler fishermen were more or less banned from a majority of the west coast. 

“Trawling vessels” would be used to drag massive weighted nets across the floor of the Pacific Ocean in order to scoop up all the fish who live down there. This method made taking in large quantities of fish much easier, but it also caused extensive damage to the rocky underwater terrain that many different species used as a home. Additionally, the large quantity of fish that trawlers were bringing in monthly was becoming extremely excessive, creating an over-fishing problem on the west coast. 

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According to ABC News, in the 1980’s there were up to 500 of these trawling vessels spread out between California, Oregon, and Washington, and these vessels were bringing in over 200 million pounds of ground-fish annually. This type of fishing was so crucial to the industry because ground-fish stay on the coast all year round, as opposed to other species, giving bottom trawlers a constant source of income. However, by the 1990’s regulators began noticing that the excessive way in which these vessels would uproot whole entire habitats, and place certain species in the ground-fish community in danger, was problematic. 

“By 2005, trawlers brought in just one-quarter of the haul of the 1980s. The fleet was down to 75 boats. We really wiped out the industry for a number of years. To get those things up and going again was and is not easy. In 2011, trawlers were assigned quotas for how many of each species they could catch. Mandatory independent observers accompanied the vessels and hand-counted their haul. Fishermen quickly learned to avoid areas heavy in off-limits species and began innovating to net fewer banned fish,” said Brad Pettinger, former director of the Oregon Trawl Commission who developed part of the plan to reopen fishing grounds.

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Since these stricter regulations have been implemented, ground-fish populations have rebounded much faster than conservationists predicted. So much so that on January 1st of this upcoming year, regulators of the fishing industry will be reopening a large area on the Pacific Coast specifically for bottom trawling. The best part? The reopening has even been approved by state-wide environmentalist groups, the same ones who were able to create the trawling bans in the first place. 

The collaboration between fishermen and environmentalist’s has been years in the making. Throughout the past five years the two groups have created a long-term plan that would permanently protect certain areas on the Pacific Coast that formerly fell victim to over-fishing caused by trawlers. These areas will be taken over by other conservationist groups that will work on rebuilding the coral reef/ocean floor ecosystems that have been lost. Additionally, trawlers still have regulations in terms of how much they can fish, but with a reduced amount of vessels on the west coast, fishermen are able to make their living without all the second hand environmental guilt. In response both groups are, surprisingly, very satisfied with the result of their teamwork, and how much they both are able to benefit. 

“A fair number of fishermen thought it was a good deal and if it was going to happen, it was better for them to participate than not. It’s right up there with the best and most rewarding things in my career — and I’ve been at it 50 years,” said Tom Libby, a fish processor who was instrumental in crafting the agreement.

“It’s really a conservation home run. The recovery is already decades ahead of schedule. It’s the biggest environmental story that no one knows about.” said Shems Jud, regional director for the Environmental Defense Fund’s ocean program.