Out-of-region experts explain a new path for fisheries

Buying and reallocating crab permits to the next generation of Lower Columbia fishermen might be one use for a local community fishing association.

ILWACO and CHINOOK — Faced with a host of tangled issues ranging from expensive start-up costs to competition from huge multi-state and international seafood companies, small-town fishermen in the Columbia estuary are casting about for future directions.

Dozens of fishermen, state and local political leaders, and supporters jammed a large Ilwaco conference room March 24 to hear from experts knowledgeable about the subject of community fishing associations, or CFAs.

CFAs are non-profit organizations tailored to local needs. They usually obtain fishing permits and quotas, then lease them out at subsidized rates to new fishermen getting into the business. Typically, these beginning fishermen “graduate” after five years or so, as they gain expertise and can afford to buy fishing rights of their own.

Ed Backus of Collaborative Fisheries Associates said there is no cookie-cutter approach to CFAs and similar entities like fishing-quota banks. Pointing to organizations in California and Massachusetts, Backus said CFAs can be tailored to different fisheries and goals.

The ports of Ilwaco and Chinook, which now operate under a hybrid joint-management structure coordinated by Ilwaco Port Manager Guy Glenn Jr., are hosting CFA discussions. Without an ongoing commercial fishing industry, the small ports could lose federal maintenance dredging of their navigation channels, while the river towns could lose one of their few economic sectors.

Presenting talks at the Ilwaco CFA meeting were Paul Parker, director of Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance, and Capt. Jeremiah O’Brien, member and former president of the Morro Bay Commercial Fishermen’s Organization and the Morro Bay Community Quota Fund.

Parker described how the Cape Cod CFA is carefully designed to support local communities. Help is tailored to responsible residents. About 40 vessels and 120 fishing families, bringing in an annual value of $6.5 million, currently are included under that CFA’s umbrella.

The CFA took on $2.5 million in initial debt to acquire fishing rights and paid about half back in five years, Parker said. Initial participants are doing very well, primarily in the Cape Cod scallop fishery, he said. The CFA’s investment in groundfish quota hasn’t proven as useful, due to declines in those fisheries off the East Coast, he said. Groundfish rights acquired by the CFA may prove useful in the future as species recover, Parker noted.

In response to a question from local fisherman Kevin Soule, Backus said that individual participants in the Cape Cod CFA pay back the association’s investment with 6 percent of the ex-vessel value of catches.

At Morro Bay, O’Brien said accounting for the cost of federal observers in West Coast groundfish fisheries has been an ongoing issue. Improvement in electronic monitoring may help resolve the problem, he said. (Monitors watch to make sure boats don’t overly impact species that are deemed to be in trouble.)

Even so, the Morro Bay CFA has been so successful that a number of other California fishing ports are looking at the idea, including Half Moon Bay, Monterey and Santa Barbara. In every case, a key goal is making certain the fish catch doesn’t migrate out of small communities.

Both Parker and O’Brien said CFA management of even relatively low percentages overall permits and quotas has proven to stabilize local fishing sectors by giving a new generation of fishermen a viable path toward entry. This assurance of a future provides a financial foundation for everyone.

These comparatively new fishermen have to pledge to catch all of the quota they’ve been assigned. If they aren’t able to do so, they get a smaller amount the following season. Other requirements may include appropriate crew compensation, keeping up with taxes and insurance, and other backbone aspects of running a successful business.

But “you don’t want to micromanage fishermen,” O’Brien said to general laughter, in light of the industry’s strong reputation for doing things its own way.

Nothing has been decided as yet about forming a CFA on the Washington side of the Columbia estuary. Forming a CFA would require steps by the port commissions for Ilwaco and Chinook.

Resolving technical legal issues might require legislative action. A fisherman pointed out, for example, that Washington permits can be quite technical in terms of vessel sizes, crabpot numbers and other issues.

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