- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 21, 2003

CRESCENT CITY, Calif. (AP) — Richard Young was an associate professor of economics when he figured out he could make more money following his father’s footsteps onto the family fishing boat.

That was in the late 1970s, when there were plenty of groundfish and government regulation was a way to fend off Russian trawlers, not limit the catch by Americans. But West Coast groundfish landings have been steadily declining since 1987, especially during the past five years.

This year, Congress approved a program to reduce the 263-boat West Coast groundfish fleet by as much as half through buyouts. The idea was that those who get off the water have a stake in a new life, and those who remain can make a better living.

“This is a potentially huge life-changing event,” Mr. Young said after returning to port from a two-day trip that netted 15,000 pounds of groundfish, mostly Dover sole. “I’ve fished most of my adult life. I’m 56 years old. If I sold the boat, I’d be unemployed for the first time since I was 14.”

Aug. 29 is the deadline for fishermen to make bids setting a dollar amount on their way of life.

“Would I sell the boat for $100,000? No. I would think it’s worth more than that. Would I sell the boat for $600,000? Yes, I would. I don’t think it’s worth that much.

“Now comes the hard part. Someplace between $100,000 and $600,000 I switch from being a keeper to a seller.”

When Mr. Young started fishing full time in 1978, groundfish were overtaking salmon as the leading West Coast fishery. Fishing and timber were the economic pillars of small Pacific Coast towns.

International treaties had set a 200-mile limit that pushed foreign boats off the continental shelf, and the federal government would offer cheap financing to build up the domestic fleet.

As the fleet grew and technology for finding and catching fish improved, fish populations declined. Changing ocean conditions robbed the fish of food and made things worse. In 2000, the federal government declared a disaster after the 20-year average catch of 74,000 tons dropped to 36,000 tons.

Nine stocks, mostly slow-growing rockfish marketed as snapper, have been declared overfished and are expected to take decades to recover.

Under its buyback plan, Congress put up $10 million and authorized a loan of $36 million that fishermen who stay on the water will repay.

“This is the milestone people have been waiting for that will begin to turn the fishery around to economic sense,” said Pete Leipzig, executive director of the Fishermen’s Marketing Association in Eureka, which has worked for the buyback since 1996.

Mr. Leipzig is being inundated with calls from fishermen trying to figure out what others are bidding.

After bids are in, fishermen vote whether to accept the deal. Results are expected by the middle of November.

The buyback “by itself won’t fix all the problems of the fishery,” said Ralph Brown, who sits on the Pacific Fishery Management Council, which sets West Coast fishing seasons. “Hopefully it will give enough stability and profit that we can now start making the steps we need to do to finish fixing it.”



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