Together with fishermen on California’s Central Coast, The Nature Conservancy is developing more environmentally sensitive fishing practices for harvesting groundfish — including petrale sole, rockfish and other species — and providing consumers with fresh, local and more sustainably harvested seafood.
The Conservancy's Central Coast Groundfish Project is addressing overfishing and the destruction of ocean habitats by working with coastal communities to pioneer cutting-edge science, conservation tools and markets that encourage long-term stewardship of our oceans.
As part of this project, the Conservancy is working to find sustainable ways to fish in order to protect nature and preserve California’s maritime heritage. One way we are doing this is by buying trawl-fishing permits — commercial fishermen are legally required to have a permit to fish — and leasing them back to fishermen, who will be required to follow specific conservation practices.
Environmental and Economic Challenges
Historically, groundfish landings supported robust fishing industries and communities along California’s Central Coast. Over the last three decades, the west coast groundfish fishery came to rely on bottom trawling — the dragging of nets along the seafloor — as its primary means of catching fish.
Bottom trawling not only catches target species of fish but also results in a high rate of "bycatch" — the trawling nets sweep up nearly everything in their path, including non-target species of fish, plants and other ocean habitat features.
Overreliance on this fishing method, with its high bycatch and seafloor impacts, greatly contributed to increased laws and restrictions on where and when fishing could occur, which, in turn, led to a drastic decline in the fishery’s economic performance.
Unlikely Partnership Emerges in Morro Bay
Fishermen and conservation groups have a long history of clashing over environmental battles, yet after the fishery declines hit Morro Bay, the two sides realized that working together might be the only way to save the local fishery.
Collaboration among these unlikely partners began when The Nature Conservancy and local fishermen successfully petitioned fishery managers for the establishment of 3.8 million acres of no-trawl zones off California’s Central Coast. The Conservancy’s purchase of trawl-fishing permits served to reduce trawling and mitigate the economic impact of these new closures. In this model, fishermen could choose to lease the permits from the Conservancy or opt to leave the fishery.
Building off that collaboration, the Conservancy, fishermen and community leaders of the Central Coast, along with scientists and state and federal agencies, are now working together to transform the local groundfish harvest and business model to one of greater economic and environmental sustainability.
These efforts focus on the following key areas:
- Markets. There is a growing demand for sustainably caught local seafood. Our partnership is creating new ways to fish to take advantage of this market and move past the traditional trawl-based model of catching and selling high volumes of fish for low values. This gives fishermen the economic incentive to participate in long-term conservation projects.
- Local Management. The Nature Conservancy is working with fishermen and fishery managers to pioneer a new management model that would rely on a more collaborative approach, secure local fishermen’s ability to fish, promote innovation in harvest practices and bring fresh local seafood to market for consumers.
- Science and Harvest Innovation. The Conservancy and its partners are using fishing-demonstration projects as platforms for unprecedented cooperative research that will help evaluate and adapt efforts to build a sustainable fishery and pioneer new ways to catch groundfish.
We believe that the partnership model and knowledge generated from the Central Coast Groundfish Project will help inform future management decisions and may clear the path for similar partnerships and innovations in the larger west coast groundfish fishery and beyond efforts to build a sustainable fishery and pioneer new ways to catch groundfish.