Monday, May 4, 2009

State-commissioned study looks deep into commercial fisheries

Eureka Times-Standard

John Driscoll /The Times-Standard
The first comprehensive economic study of the state's commercial fisheries shows an industry with promise but also in peril.

The value of most fisheries isn't keeping up with the costs needed to harness them, found the California Department of Fish and Game-commissioned study released this week. The snapshot of the wide range of fisheries shows an industry vulnerable to globalization, regulation and competition from other food production industries.

”It doesn't paint a very nice picture of what's going on out there,” said Humboldt State University economist Steve Hackett.

HSU and consultant King and Associates out of Maryland prepared the report.

The report doesn't measure trends over time, but instead focuses on 2006. For example, limited fishing for salmon on the North Coast that year shows a depressed fishery that would look better, perhaps, if earlier data were used and averaged. But there have also been recent years in which there was no salmon fishing at all.

Dungeness crab was a moneymaker, according to the report, although it's subject to natural, cyclical fluctuations in catch. In contrast, the 500 people in the hook-and-line fishery, Hackett said, split a meager $1 million among them in 2006.

The economic report is meant to inform regulators of the effects policy changes and other factors can have on commercial fisheries. For example, it can help quantify the costs and possible benefits of establishing marine reserves under the Marine Life Protection Act, whose implementation is a continuing concern for commercial fishermen. It can also help understand the effects of wave energy projects and climate change on fisheries, Hackett said.

The report breaks down the elements of the various fisheries in the state by county and region, and attaches multipliers -- an economic tool to measure the total effects of an industry -- to the fisheries. The trawl fishery was found to have a multiplier of nearly 1.6, which means that for every $1 million a fishery gains or loses over the status quo, $1.6 million is generated or lost in the local economy. That includes factors like purchases of fuel, bait, gear and other necessities.

Eureka fisherman Dave Bitts, also president of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, said that the report will ideally allow the state to question actions that might harm the fishing industry. Among the concepts being weighed that may have an effect are revisions of landing fees to help fund Fish and Game's ongoing operations.

”The state has to be careful,” Bitts said. “If you set fees that put people out of business, then you don't collect anything. I would hope that they'd consider that at a minimum.”

Hackett said that globalization is one reason many fisheries are suffering from reduced prices. Cheaper products from out of state -- and from aquaculture operations -- often end up on diners' plates in California. Fish also competes with other “luxury gourmet” items like high-quality beef and free-range chicken, Hackett said. He pointed out that agriculture has an advantage in that it can tap innovations to increase yields, but fisheries are dependent on what the environment can produce naturally.

Department of Fish and Game fisheries economist Terry Tillman said that there is currently abundant information on sport fisheries from the federal government, but data on the state's commercial fisheries was lacking.

”There was a real vacuum for information on commercial uses,” Tillman said. “We needed to fill that gap.”

He called the study a “treasure trove of information” that can help the agency and legislators make better decisions in the future, and allow the department to satisfy its requirements to consider economic impacts to businesses when addressing resource issues.

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