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Starting in January, fishermen on the West Coast could see a major change in their livelihoods. In California, Oregon and Washington, fishermen will become owners of their fishery, much like the shareholders in a company. The move is part of an effort to save fish and jobs in an industry plagued by overfishing.

KQED's Lauren Sommer reports.

LAUREN SOMMER: Pacific groundfish isn't really a term you see on a lot of restaurant menus. Fisherman Geoff Bettencourt says you'd have to look for a few different words to know you're eating from this fishery.

GEOFF BETTENCOURT: Rock cod, black cod, Petrale, English, Dover.

SOMMER: Bettencourt is a fourth generation fisherman here in Half Moon Bay. Those groundfish are a big part of his income.

BETTENCOURT: Some years, dragging is extremely important. It's what we do all summer when there's no salmon.

SOMMER: Bettencourt calls it dragging because he fishes with a trawl net, a funnel-shaped net that's dragged behind the boat. It brings in several kinds of fish at once, but each species has a different catch limit. So, if he catches too many of a certain fish...

BETTENCOURT: Well, then, you have to continue the rest of the time throwing that fish over.

SOMMER: The fish that are thrown back are called by-catch and the problem is: most don't survive. Federal fishery managers say that wasted fish makes this fishery unsustainable. So, Bettencourt says they're turning to a new system called catch shares.

BETTENCOURT: It creates accountability for every single fish. When that fish comes on the boat, whether you like it or not, it's yours.

SOMMER: At the beginning of each season, fishery managers set an overall catch limit. Each fisherman will own a percentage of that catch. Just like shares in the stock market, the quotas can be traded or sold. The idea is that a market- based system will give fishermen more flexibility.

BETTENCOURT: Like you could have two different trawlers and they could just trade species so they both could have a better living. Each guy can tune his business more finely to what he does.

LARRY COLLINS: I don't have a real good feeling about market-based solutions.

SOMMER: Larry Collins is president of the Crab Boat Owners Association in San Francisco, one of the groups that has filed a lawsuit to stop catch shares on the West Coast. Collins is concerned that a market-based system will bring market manipulation. Under the rules, you don't have to be a fisherman to buy fish quota, so it's possible that speculators or even environmental groups could buy into the market.

COLLINS: You want hedge fund managers deciding how to, when the people catch fish? Is that who you want to own your fish, or do you want to own them?

SOMMER: Collins is also concerned about smaller fishermen. In Alaskan fisheries that use catch shares, some smaller boats opted to sell their fish quotas.

COLLINS: That concentrated the resource in fewer and fewer hands. Now, I tend to think that public trust resources should be used to employ as many people as possible.

WILLIAM STELLE: There will be some consolidation. There should be some consolidation, in fact.

SOMMER: That's William Stelle with the National Marine Fisheries Service, the agency that oversees the fishery.

STELLE: We've got too many boats chasing too few fish and that's why nobody's making any money.

SOMMER: Stelle says they've put in market caps to prevent anyone from controlling too much of the overall catch. For fishermen Geoff Bettencourt, it's the idea of ownership that may change the fishery the most.

BETTENCOURT: Well, when the government owned it, nobody cared. But now when that guy owns it, he really wants to make sure that that fish is in good shape because part of it's his.

SOMMER: More than a dozen other U.S. fisheries are also trying out catch shares, where they've also met with opposition. But fishery managers say in places like Alaska, where catch shares have been in place for several years, fishermen are now getting higher prices for their catch.

For NPR News, I'm Lauren Sommer.

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