The Groundfish Crisis: What Went Wrong?
The groundfish fishery off the U.S. West Coast is facing unprecedented restrictions as 2003 approaches. The Pacific Fishery Management Council (PFMC; www.pcouncil.org/) has adopted a new management framework for controlling the harvest of overfished rockfish stocks within the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Under this new regulatory framework, large areas will be closed to groundfish fishing year-round. For example, south of Cape Mendocino a Rockfish Conservation Area has been established that strictly regulates fishing in ocean waters 120 to 900 feet deep, which essentially encompasses the entire continental shelf ecosystem off the coast of California. Within that depth zone, no fishing for rockfish or lingcod will be allowed. This new regulatory framework was implemented to reduce the bycatch of several overfished rockfish species, especially bocaccio (Sebastes paucispinis).
|Figure 1. Relationship between the allowable biological catch (ABC) and the total catch of canary rockfish from 1990 through 2001. Points mark the completion of stock assessments, which resulted in a scientific change in the ABC.
So how did we get into this dire situation? Have we been the victims of avaricious fishermen and laissez-faire managers? That seems to be the most frequent explanation, and it is they who have been most severely criticized in the media. However, there is much more to this story. In fact, for years there were serious flaws in the scientific advice that was presented to the council as the foundation of its decision making. The deficiencies were not easy to foresee and were due to a combination of inadequate data and fishery productivity that was far lower than anyone imagined. To understand how we got to this point, one must follow the history of groundfish management since the passing of the original Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSFCMA) in 1976 to the present.
At the time the MSFCMA was passed, we knew little about the groundfish resources off the U.S. West Coast, particularly with respect to the potential sustainability of these fisheries. Even so, by 1982 the PFMC had developed a groundfish Fishery Management Plan (FMP) that required the determination of allowable biological catches (ABCs) for each actively managed stock. The ABC is a purely scientific determination that attempts to identify the annual catch of a stock if the fishery were managed to achieve the long-term maximum sustainable yield (MSY). However, facing a dearth of scientific information during the early 1980s, the PFMC adopted ABCs for many stocks that were based simply on the amount of historical catch, which capped groundfish harvests at their existing levels. At the time, this was viewed as a first, do no harm approach to management.
As the information base increased markedly during the 1980s, individual stock-assessments began to be completed on the most important species in the fishery. A stock assessment is a scientific analysis that assembles all known sources of information about a species (e.g., landings, age- and length-frequency data, catch- per-unit-effort statistics, life history parameters) and funnels the information into a population model that statistically fits the data. The model is then used to answer questions concerning the status of the stock. Several things result from a stock assessment, including (1) an estimate of current stock size and (2) the historical time series of spawning stock size and recruitment, that is the new additions to the population. In theory, the latter information can be used to establish the innate productivity of a stock and MSY and the optimal rate of fishing (FMSY) can be determined. However, because of tremendous year-to-year variation in reproductive success, estimates of recruitment are inherently imprecise. This variability makes it nearly impossible to determine stock productivity parameters accurately.
Instead of relying on noisy spawner-recruit information to set ABCs, the council adopted a harvest policy that still enjoys widespread use throughout the world today. That policy consists of applying a constant rate of fishing pressure to a stock, irrespective of population size; that is, a constant rate policy takes a fixed fraction (e.g., 10 percent) of the stock every year as harvest. Theoretical results show that such a policy has many desirable qualities, although FMSY must first be determined, which unfortunately requires analysis of highly variable spawner-recruit data. However, theoretical results developed in the early 1990s by William Clark seemed to solve that problem. He showed that, over a broad range of productivity conditions, harvesting at the so-called F35% rate would be expected to produce no worse than 75 percent of MSY. (F35% is the rate of fishing that reduces the reproductive contribution of a new female recruit entering the exploited stock to 35 percent of what it would be if there were no fishing.) Best of all, that rate could be calculated from basic life history and fishery information; no spawner-recruit analysis was needed. Based on this scientific information, the council then adopted a groundfish harvest policy that applied the F35% rate to estimated stock size to yield the ABC. As a case in point, Figure 1 shows that the annual catch of canary rockfish was usually well within the ABC during the entire 1990s. The important conclusion here is that the PFMC adopted a scientifically based harvest policy to set ABCs, and that harvest levels actually conformed to the policy for many years. In that regard, canary rockfish is by no means exceptional.
|Figure 2. Relative population status of six overfished rockfish species. Populations that decline to below 25 percent of their unfished population level are declared overfished. Overfished stocks are considered rebuilt when they reach 40 percent of their unfished level.
It wasnt until the MSFCMA was re-authorized in 1996 that the real difficulty was revealed. Language in the new Sustainable Fisheries Act required that all fishery management councils establish biomass-based targets and thresholds when setting ABCs. Whereas up until that point catches were determined solely by current stock size and the harvest rate proxy, now the councils had to consider the overall amount of stock depletion. To satisfy this new law, the PFMC adopted an amendment to the groundfish FMP that set a biomass target of 40 percent of the unfished level (B0) and an overfished threshold of 25 percent of B0. The new law also required that if stock size were to fall below the overfished threshold, then a rebuilding plan had to be developed to return the stock to target level. However, as the council began applying its new biomass-based policies, it quickly became apparent that many rockfish stocks were overfished, some severely so (Figure 2, p. 19). Bocaccio, for example, is currently estimated to be 4 percent of B0.
So what went wrong? Results from a recent harvest policy workshop on West Coast groundfishes show clearly that over the past two decades these species have been amazingly unproductive stocks. The fallacy of applying Clarks F35% rate as a surrogate estimate for FMSY is that under current conditions many of our stocks, especially the rockfishes, are barely able to replace themselves, even in the absence of a fishery. In essence, the PFMC used an established rule of thumb to set ABCs when they were dealing with stocks that were statistical outliers. Because the proxy harvest rate greatly overestimated FMSY, the stocks continued to decline. Now, due to the need to rebuild and continued low productivity, it will take many years to rebuild overfished species to their target levels.
National Marine Fisheries Service
Behind the Groundfish Closure
In the summer of 2002 the Pacific Fisheries Management Council (PFMC) closed waters outside of twenty fathoms to groundfishing, due to the depleted status of bocaccio, whose numbers have plunged by 96.4 percent since 1969. The council asserts that this action should save the fish commonly sold as Pacific red snapper from extinction and promote its eventual recovery. However, even under the new restrictions the slow-growing, slow-to-reproduce rockfish is not expected to recover for 170 years, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS).
The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, passed in 1976, created a network of regional councils to manage the nations fisheries in federal waters. The councils are required to manage these resources pursuant to management plans that are approved by NMFS. The Pacific Coast Groundfish Fishery Management Plan (FMP) was implemented in 1982. Previously management had been under the jurisdiction of the states of California, Oregon, and Washington. When the groundfish FMP was adopted, it established the authority and limitations on council actions, but was essentially a framework plan that did not contain specific regulations or management measures. It has been amended thirteen times in the last twenty years to respond to new statutory requirements and changing conditions in the fishery. Many argue that until now, the commercial fishery has been overexploited, despite a maze of regulation. In 1983 catch limits were first imposed, and over the past twenty years certain species have been the targets of specifically tailored efforts such as trip limits and regional management schemes. In 1994 the groundfish fishery was divided into open access and limited entry, with separate quotas and trip limits for each. The recreational fishery has traditionally been restricted with bag limits, but in 2000 recreational fishing was closed from March to June for all non-nearshore rockfishes.
The accompanying graph (Figure 1) depicts the catch of rocky deep shelf and slope rockfishes in the sanctuary over the past twenty years. The downward trend is likely due to a combination of decreasing abundance and increasingly restrictive regulations. Each Q on the graph represents the imposition of a quota for a species within the rocky deep shelf and slope groundfish complex. Common species within the sanctuary that have simultaneously exhibited the most significant declines in mean length over the past twenty years include chilipepper rockfish, bocaccio, yellowtail rockfish, and widow rockfish.
Bycatch is a particularly serious issue with which the council has had to contend. Mortality of deep-dwelling rockfishes is virtually guaranteed when they are brought to the surface. The council has used estimates of rockfish bycatch of 15 to 30 percent of total catches for harvest modeling and management purposes. However, this range is a rough approximation and may represent a conservative estimate, particularly in bottom trawls. This has greatly complicated the effective establishment of harvest levels, which aim to restore what may be severely depleted stocks. Bycatch problems may also impact or even close other fisheries with high incidental catch rates such as the spot prawn fishery.
|Figure 1: Reported commercial landings from 1981 through 2000 of rockfishes within the rocky deep shelf and slope habitats at the five major ports associated with the sanctuary. ENSO: El Niño Southern Oscillation (Source: Richard Starr, Jason Cope, and Lisa Kerr, Trends in Fisheries and Fishery Resources, a Sea Grant Publication, 2002.)
Local environmentalists believe that the groundfish collapse could have been avoided if the PFMC had heeded repeated warnings from marine scientists. They feel that the council has a pro-fishing bias and required absolute proof of a collapse before it was willing to restrict fishing, which has resulted in massive closures that will last decades with no guarantee that these fisheries will ever rebuild. Lawsuits filed by environmentalists such as the Natural Resources Defense Council may have been an additional catalyst for the closure. These alleged failures on the part of the council to adhere to statutorily required rebuilding plans designed to restore overfished stocks.
On the other hand, many central coast trawlers feel that the council is caving to pressure from environmental groups. The fishermen argue that the PFMC is required to base its decisions on data, and that the paucity of information available is an insufficient basis for such draconian measures. Many assert that there are more bocaccio in local waters now than at any time in the past ten years, and that the closure is a response to old, unreliable data.
Conservationists and fishermen are both concerned about the increased fishing pressure that will now be shifted to the nearshore and deep slope environments. Particularly susceptible are species such as lingcod and greenlings, which are already subject to heavy fishing pressure. With an increased amount of commercial and recreational fishing effort nearshore, there will also likely be more vessel groundings, exposing fishermen and the coastal environment to greater risks. Fishermen and environmentalists both hope that the social and economic sacrifices caused by the groundfish closure will ultimately lead to solutions that protect the ecosystem and its resources and sustain the fishing industry as a vital part of the local culture and economy.
Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary
Squid Management Plan
Market squid, Loligo opalescens, are the focus of the largest commercial fishery in California and are harvested commercially by targeting spawning aggregations primarily off southern California and Monterey Bay. In addition to supporting an important commercial fishery, the market squid resource is important to the recreational fishery and is vital forage for numerous seabirds, marine mammals, and fish species.
|Market squid (Loligo opalescens) photo John Hyde
A growing international market for squid and declining squid production in other parts of the world have resulted in an increased demand for California market squid. As a result, commercial landings of market squid in California more than quadrupled from 1980 to 1997. Concern over the rapid increase in squid harvest and new, more efficient vessels entering the fishery led to industry-sponsored legislation in 1997 that asked for management improvements and placed a moratorium on the number of vessels in the fishery. In 2001 the legislature approved a bill that provides for the management of the market squid fishery by the Fish and Game Commission (FGC) and requires the adoption of a squid fishery management plan.
Several interim regulations have been enacted by the FGC to manage the squid fishery. These include: 1) Commercial squid fishing is prohibited from noon Friday through noon Sunday. Because spawning aggregations are targeted by fishermen, this closure provides a consecutive two-day respite for squid from fishing pressure. 2) Squid fishing vessels and light boats are required to maintain logbooks, which provide the California Department of Fish and Game with information on fishing activities. 3) The squid fishery uses high-powered lights to attract and aggregate spawning squid to surface waters for harvest. Each vessel fishing or lighting for squid is limited to a maximum of 30,000 watts of attracting lights; these lights must be shielded. Lighting regulations are intended to reduce the total amount of light each vessel may use and keep light from shining on land where it may impact seabirds or coastal communities. 4) Finally, a seasonal harvest guideline of 125,000 short tons was enacted for the commercial squid fishery to prevent expansion of the harvest beyond current levels. In addition to the interim management regulations, the squid fishery management plan considers options for limited entry including a capacity goal and permit transferability, daily trip limits, and monitoring the fishery through egg escapement.
The original adoption date (December 31, 2002) for the market squid fishery management plan has been delayed; the expected adoption date is now the summer of 2003. A preliminary draft of the management plan can be viewed at www.dfg.ca.gov/mrd/marketsquid/ index.html. Public comment is still being accepted.
Annette E. Henry and Kevin T. Hill
California Department of Fish and Game
|The Marine Life Protection Act
In February 1999 the Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) was added to the California Fish and Game Code to deal explicitly with the use of marine protected areas (MPAs) to conserve marine resources in California. This idea of setting aside specific areas of marine habitat for restricted purposes is long-standing, but the explicit use of MPAs as an alternative management scheme for worldwide marine ecosystems has only been seriously considered since the late 1950s. The MLPA recognizes the educational, recreational, scientific, socioeconomic, and environmental importance of Californias living marine resources and the need to protect them from potentially destructive entities such as pollution, coastal development, and other destructive human activities. Along with the modification of Californias existing MPAs, a process of abolishing or establishing new MPAs is also required by the MLPA. The following is a list of six primary goals of the MLPA, to be used as guidelines to formulate MPAs:
- To protect the natural diversity and abundance of marine life and the structure, function, and integrity of marine ecosystems
- To help sustain, conserve, and protect marine life popula- tions, including those of economic value, and rebuild those that are depleted
- To improve recreational, educational, and study opportu- nities provided by marine ecosystems that are subject to minimal human disturbance and to manage these uses in a manner consistent with protecting biodiversity
- To protect marine natural heritage, including protection of representative and unique marine life habitats in California waters for their intrinsic value
- To ensure that Californias MPAs have clearly defined objectives, effective management measures, and adequate enforcement and are based on sound scientific guidelines
- To ensure that the states MPAs are designed and managed, to the extent possible, as a network
The California Department of Fish and Game (CDFG) has begun a process to designate MPAs that fulfill the requirements of the MLPA. Constituent involvement and input is important in the plan preparation, with all final decisions and recommendations based on the best available scientific knowledge. The following components are to be included in the plan:
- Recommendations for the extent and type of habitat that should be included in MPAs
- A list of species and groups of organisms that may benefit from MPAs including their habitat and ecological require- ments and dependent oceanographic conditions
- An analysis of current MPAs, with recommendations on the adequate size, number, and siting of each MPA, and proposed alternatives to current networking of MPAs
- Recommendations for monitoring and research within the proposed MPA network to assist in the adaptive management of the system
- Recommendations for management and enforcement to ensure appropriate and effective protection of each area under designation
Seven regional working groups representing various constituencies have been convened by CDFG to provide input into the process of designating MPAs. Three of these groups (from the San Francisco, Monterey, and Morro Bay regions) are focusing on the area encompassed by the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Further information can be found by visiting the California Department of Fish and Game web site (www.dfg.ca.gov/mrd/mlpa).
(Edited from Trends in Fisheries and Fishery Resources Associated with the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary from 1981-2000, by Richard Starr(1), Jason M. Cope(2), and Lisa Kerr(2), with GIS analysis and maps provided by Jamie Kum(3).)
(1)University of California Sea Grant Extension Program
(2)Moss Landing Marine Laboratories
(3)California Department of Fish and Game