SM PIER — A few feet from the Santa Monica Pier’s iconic sports fishing sign, a group of environmentalists engaged in a symbolic game of tug-of-war, pitting small fishermen against corporate giants in what has become a bitterly divisive debate over how best to manage seafood supplies.

The activists with Food & Water Watch, a consumer advocacy group, are trying to draw attention to a new management plan intended to protect endangered fish species by limiting the number that can be caught during a given season, dividing that number into “fish shares” or “catch shares” which are then distributed like stocks to fishermen, cooperatives or communities who could then buy, sell or lease their shares.

While all sides agree that something must be done to guard against overfishing and the complete decimation of the Pacific groundfish fishery, the most valuable fishery on the Pacific Coast, there is considerable disagreement on how to accomplish that goal. There are those who feel catch shares, which are in effect in other fisheries around the globe, amount to the privatization of a public resource and will reward larger fleets that are not as environmentally friendly, while others believe the program protects fishermen, big and small, by making their work less competitive and more profitable while imposing stiff penalties for overfishing.

“The reality is these catch share management programs can be bad for small-scale fishermen, our oceans, and consumers who want access to more sustainable seafood,” Miller Nuttle, a field organizer for Food & Water Watch, said earlier this week as colleagues urged visitors to the pier to contact their representatives in Washington, D.C. and call for congressional hearings on the issue.

Those opposed to the catch share program, which will go into effect in January 2011 on the Pacific Coast, affecting shoreside trawl vessels and co-operatives for offshore catcher-processor trawl vessels working the groundfish fishery, believe smaller operations that are closely tied to the communities they serve will be forced out of business or become “share croppers” to larger companies that will have received a greater amount of shares. This will lead to job losses and decreased pay for crews.

“We certainly want regulations because without them the fisheries would collapse, but you have to have ground rules in place,” said Zeke Grader, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations. “The argument people make is that ownership will lead to people being better stewards but that isn’t always the case … . People feel free markets and privatization will save us. Well, it didn’t save Wall Street.”

The main concern for those opposed to catch shares is how the shares are divvied up. Under the current plan, shares are divided based on catch history. Those who have caught more fish over the last decade will be awarded more shares by the Pacific Fishery Management Council, which overseas the program and monitors fleets. Nuttle said larger operations catch more fish because they use aggressive techniques that are harmful to the environment.

All agree that some fishermen will be put out of business by the program and the cost of seafood will rise, but supporters say that would be the outcome regardless given that supplies are already being worn thin for many species because of overfishing.

Supporters who have been working on the catch share program for six years in the Pacific said there are measures in place to guard against consolidation of the shares and do not believe it is fair to say that just because a fleet is large means it isn’t sustainable. It’s all about fishing techniques used, the type of fish caught and management practices instituted.

Under current systems, fishermen are forced to compete with one another for the total catch, working aggressively and often in dangerous conditions to bring in the most fish they can in a short period of time. No one is guaranteed a share of the total catch and overfishing often occurs.

“This is very inefficient and destructive to the environment,” said Merrick Burden, an economist with the management council who has done extensive research on catch shares. “Of course how the shares are divvied up is going to be very controversial. It doesn’t matter how you do it, somebody will be upset.”

The council did consider auctioning off shares but opted against that. Catch history, it felt, was a more equitable way. This gives fishermen the option of buying more from others or selling and getting out of the business with capital to start another venture, ending a cycle of barely breaking even for some.

If some fishing communities are suffering, the council will have the option of doling out more shares, keeping a reserve on hand for such cases.

“There are a couple of tools that can be used to make sure communities are protected,” Burden said.

And consumers will be able to get fresh fish more often than before, said Johanna Thomas of the Environmental Defense Fund, a supporter of catch shares.

“Instead of two days to go out and make your quota, these fishermen will have eight or nine months to a season so you are not flooding the market at one time,” Thomas said. “This will allow fishermen to get better prices and consumers will have access to fresh fish at Santa Monica restaurants. This allows fishermen to be smarter about more efficient and work with one another to maximize their opportunities.”

A task force on catch shares created by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is expected to make a recommendation on a national policy in the coming weeks.

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