West Coast Groundfish

In a blog post for the New York Times last week, Sylvia Rowly traced the recent history of the U.S. West Coast groundfish fishery. The past few decades has seen the fishery go from an “economic disaster,” to certified sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council. Rowly attributes the success of the fishery to the 2007 reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Act and the change in management to a catch-share program.

Comment by Ray Hilborn, University of Washington, @hilbornr

The crisis in U.S. west coast groundfish was not a lack of fish, but instead was caused by U.S. stock rebuilding requirements.

Sylvia Rowly’s opinion piece misrepresents the history and status of the U.S. West Coast groundfish fishery. The west coast ground fish stocks had not collapsed in any sense, the total abundance of these stocks was about half of what it had been when large scale fishing began around 1950. This is the level that is generally agreed to produce long-term maximum sustainable yield. Certainly a number of individual stocks were at low abundance and declared overfished, but as we showed in our 2012 article in Conservation Biology there were plenty of fish to catch and the sustainable yield of groundfish off the west coast was as high as ever. The crisis for fishermen was brought on by catch restrictions imposed to protect the overfished stocks (and too many boats), not by the lack of fish to catch. Even though total abundance of groundfish has been rebuilding since about 2000, the catch has not increased because this is a highly mixed fishery where it is difficult to manage each individual species to its optimum level.

This figure from the 2012 paper in Conservation Biology shows the history of biomass of non-hake stocks and the catch and exploitation rates. In panel b catch is in circles, solid line harvest rate.

This figure from the 2012 paper in Conservation Biology shows the history of biomass of non-hake stocks and the catch and exploitation rates. In panel b catch is in circles, solid line harvest rate.

The current legal framework in the U.S. insists that each stock be rebuilt to levels that will produce maximum sustainable yield for that stock, even at the expense of the potential yield of much larger and more valuable stocks that are caught at the same time. At present we harvest 1% of the biomass of groundfish off the West Coast – but the science advice from NOAA suggests we could catch 3 times more than that. Put another way, the actual catch is only 1/3 of the catch limits. The reason fishermen are not catching their allowable catches is that if they go over their individual quota for any individual species, they have to stop fishing completely. Yelloweye rockfish is one of the most constraining species. The rebuilding requirements have set the quota so low that many fishermen have a quota of only a few pounds. Thus,  fishermen avoid fishing anywhere they might catch yelloweye rockfish. The result is that the total catch of yelloweye rockfish is less than 20% of the very, very small quota. Essentially, in order to avoid exceeding their yelloweye quota and other limiting species, fishermen are forfeiting 2/3 of the potential catch leaving money, food and jobs in the ocean.

Rowley’s article describes a collapse which never happened, and applauds current management practices for the current status of stocks. The new catch-share system has not been effective at getting fishermen to be able to catch the allowable catch of each species, but perhaps with changes in the system it could.

If the purpose of U.S. fisheries is to maximize the benefits from producing food, jobs and economic benefits to communities, the current requirement to rebuild all stocks to the level that would produce maximum yield for that stock is counterproductive.

Ray Hilborn is a Professor in the School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences at the University of Washington. Find him on twitter here: @hilbornr
Posted in Uncategorized.


  1. I wonder if there’s a win-win available here. Fishers under-fishing the quota of even the most constraining species sounds like risk aversion: they fish less than would give them the highest profits on average to minimize the chance of ‘lightning strike’ events that ruin their income for the rest of the year. The larger the TAC (and the TAC:Biomass ratio), the less important this risk will be and the larger fraction of the constraining quota they should catch. To the extent this pattern is measurable, it should be possible to approximately predict how much the fishers will under-fish the constraining species quota as a function of its size (or its size relative to the biomass). Anticipating this buffer, the TAC of the constraining species could be set slightly higher than the desired catch limit, such that the fishers would be able to catch more of the target species without exceeding the desired catch limit of the constraining species in practice.

    That said: (i) I don’t disagree with the suggestion that management should more explicitly consider tradeoffs between restricting constraining species mortality and facilitating the profitability of the fishery; and (ii) we should make sure that species like yelloweye rockfish (whose quotas are extremely small but still under-fished) are actually the constraining species from a technological perspective before we relax their quotas (under-fished quotas could be a sign that they are not as constraining in practice as other species).

  2. Hi Professor Hilborn,
    Thanks for your feedback. I don’t think I did mis-represent the situation – this is the paragraph from the article where I go into detail about the problem:

    “Several critical species — from the spiky, orange canary rockfish to the large lingcod — had dropped to below one-quarter of their natural, un-fished levels. Sharp restrictions were brought in, and the fishery was officially declared an economic disaster. Many fishermen found themselves stranded and facing bankruptcy. “It was a perfect example of too many trawlers chasing too few fish,” says Pettinger, who is now director of the Oregon Trawl Commission. “It was a dark time.””

    As for the fact that fishermen are only catching around third of the catch limits, you rightly point out this is a serious issue and I would have included this if I had had the word count. I did allude to this in saying that, despite the fact that the fishery has now been certified by the MSC and had its ratings significantly increased by Seafood Watch, there’s clearly still work to do.

    I’ll keep you in mind as an interviewee if I write any more on this topic.

    Many thanks,

  3. I am not sure that Brad Pettinger had/has the best interest of the West Coast Trawl fleet at heart. When he helped design the Buy Back program and sold his boat and permit I don’t think that the program intended for him to buy a bigger trawler and remain in the fishery and have the trawlers that did not sell out in the fishery pay for it.

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