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Originally published Tuesday, June 10, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Guest columnist

Finding a system that sustains the Pacific groundfish fishery

IN the next few days or weeks, an important decision will be made that will affect the future of West Coast fisheries — the selection...

Special to The Times

IN the next few days or weeks, an important decision will be made that will affect the future of West Coast fisheries — the selection of the preferred design for an individual fishing quota (IFQ) program for Pacific groundfish (e.g., rockfish, sole, flounder, halibut, cod, whiting).

The Pacific groundfish fishery was declared a federal disaster in the year 2000, but since that time, great progress has been made in forging a path toward sustainability for this troubled fishery.

The Pacific Fishery Management Council — the federal body charged with managing West Coast fisheries — is on the cusp of an important advance in fisheries management. If done right, its approach can serve as a model for fisheries nationally and globally. The stakes are high.

More than a decade ago, while serving as a United States senator from Washington state, I was intimately involved in legislative negotiations over the desirability of IFQs as a fisheries-management tool. IFQs are important new tools to manage fishing efforts (who fishes and how much they are entitled to catch).

The basic idea behind an IFQ is simple. Under an IFQ program, each fisherman is allocated a percentage of the total allowable catch, established by the government every year, to harvest annually. Fishermen can then choose to go fishing when and where it makes the most sense — considering things like market conditions, weather, safety and even family obligations.

This new system makes more sense than arbitrary fishing "open seasons," which set off a short, frenzied "race for fish" — a race whose timing cannot take into account market conditions, fishing conditions or family obligations.

IFQs replace the historical "race for fish" with a much-more-sensible "race for value," whereby fishermen go fishing when the value of the product is highest in the marketplace — and they fish in ways that will leave the oceans productive for the next season. If the oceans are healthy and there are more fish, fishermen can get the benefit. When designed properly, IFQs hold enormous promise for improving the economic health of fishing communities and the overall health of the oceans. Everyone benefits.

During debate in 1996, Congress agreed to a moratorium on new IFQ programs while additional review of the issue was undertaken by the nation's top science authority, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS). The NAS study confirmed that IFQs can be a valuable option for fisheries management. In the intervening years, use of IFQs has grown internationally. Studies have shown the benefits of such programs in improving economic performance, reducing environmental damage and increasing fishing safety.

Like all management tools, IFQs must be implemented responsibly. The details of the program design matter. Certain conditions must be placed on IFQs to avoid potential adverse effects. Initial quota allocations are often among the most difficult decisions made by councils, with some claiming that the fish processors — as opposed to the fishermen — should get a substantial allocation.

With many others, I have serious reservations about allocating quota shares to fish processors. The NAS echoed these concerns in its study, finding that "if regional councils determine that processors may be unacceptably disadvantaged by an IFQ program because of changes in the policy or management structure, there are means ... for mitigating these impacts without resorting to the allocation of [quota share to processors]."

The Pacific Council's proposed IFQ management program is one of the most sophisticated in the nation — affecting nearly 82 species of fish. Some of these stocks are currently in sore need of rebuilding. The council has spent years analyzing the options for implementing this IFQ program.

The Pacific Council faces an important opportunity to make significant strides in reforming the management of the West Coast groundfish fishery in its meeting next week. It should proceed purposefully toward a strong IFQ program.

The council should support the excellent recommendations from all three affected states — Washington, Oregon and California — to shun the initial allocation of quota to the processing sector as unnecessary and as loaded with potential unintended consequences.

In addition, the council should retain some fishing quota to smooth the transition to IFQs for fishermen and processors and communities, all of whom depend on a healthy and vibrant fishery. Done properly, the decisions of the council will serve as a model for other fisheries around the world.

Slade Gorton spent 18 years representing Washington state in the United States Senate, where he was an advocate for IFQs. He is currently with K&L Gates, which represents various fishing and conservation interests.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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