Can conservation and commercial fishing coexist?

There was an article in the NY Times this week about this very subject. Most of us recreational fishermen hold the commercial fishing industry in low regard, with what we know from Omega Protein Corporation raping the ocean for its fish oil and the trawlers off the coast of North Carolina that were caught last year dumping striped bass over the side, leaving a trail of dead fish miles long. But is it possible for responsible commercial fishing and conservation groups to work together? After all, a healthy fishing industry is not based on quick cash grabs by wiping out a species (though sometimes one must wonder) but rather a perpetuation of an ecosystem that ensures fruitful seasons year after year.

The Nature Conservancy group is one company trying a new model of responsible commercial fishing. Based in California, the group is working with commercial fishermen to expand the knowledge base of the fishery, maintain fish stocks at healthy levels, and reduce damage done by trawlers to the ocean floor. From the article:

Five years ago, the conservancy bought out area fishing boats and licenses in a fairly extreme deal — forged with the local fishing industry — to protect millions of acres of fish habitat. The unusual collaboration was enjoined to meet stricter federal regulations and the results of a successful legal challenge. But once the conservancy had access to what was essentially its own private commercial fishing fleet, the group decided to put the boats back to work and set up a collaborative model for sustainable fishing.

Bringing information technology and better data collection to such an old-world industry is part of the plan. So is working with the fishermen it licenses to control overfishing by expanding closed areas and converting trawlers — boats that drag weighted nets across the ocean floor — to engage in more gentle and less ecologically damaging techniques like using traps, hooks and line, and seine netting.

The conservancy’s model is designed to take advantage of radical new changes in government regulation that allow fishermen in the region both more control and more responsibility for their operating choices. The new rules have led to better conservation practices across all fleets, government monitors say.

Nature Conservancy also forged a cooperative relationship with the fishermen to obtain information and hands-on knowledge of fishing patterns, yearly trends, and habitats—information that only fishermen could provide. While initially wary of the group’s intentions—what commercial guy would want a conservation group to know these kinds of things so they could close more areas to fishing?—Nature Conservancy eventually bought their way in, literally. They paid commercial fishermen for their licenses and boats when the economy was tanking, essentially buying them out of a bad financial situation and leasing the licenses back to them—effectively making the fishermen employees of Nature Conservancy. Then, “[t]he fishermen soon divulged which nurseries and rock formations needed to be protected and which areas where mature fish congregated should be left open. What resulted was a proposal that included large areas of closings — nearly 4 million acres — that most fishermen thought was fair. It was adopted easily by the fishery council in 2006.” After leasing the licenses back to fishermen, the group handed out free iPads to their new partners with which boat captains update information on targeted species. It’s another method at information collection and one in which the fishermen themselves see the benefit: identifying patterns in fish movement and spawning runs, factors of weather and moon, and areas where restricted fish were found, it seems to be a system that can work.

There are other areas of the country that are experimenting with similar relationships between conservation groups and commercial fishing industries, some of them in the North East. The benefits seem obvious, but like most things, old habits may be hard to break.



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