RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Most of the world's oceans are seriously overfished. We've been hearing this for a while. And over the last two decades, many fisheries in U.S. waters have scaled back sharply to make fishing here more sustainable. In California, two-thirds of commercial fishermen have left the business. Now some are concerned that if the industry gets much smaller, some fishing ports will collapse altogether. NPR's Richard Harris traveled to northern California, where new rules are being developed to protect both the fish and the fishermen.
RICHARD HARRIS: There's a bustle of activity at the Caito fish processing plant tucked away in Fort Bragg, California. Crab boats are unloading their writhing catches and huge crates of flatfish are being dumped out and shoveled onto a conveyor belt. It's a scene of great bounty from the sea.
Jim Caito watches happily as some 75 people crack crabs, sharpen their knives and slice and skin fish in his cool and spacious plant.
Mr. JIM CAITO (Owner, Caito Fish Processing Plant): We are in our fillet room - fillet and thickening room. They're filleting groundfish right now, packing it for fresh market. They're filleting Dover sole right now.
HARRIS: So this is sort of an assembly line? Because it looks like, are those the sole up there, sort of the whole fish?
Mr. CAITO: Those are the whole fish that they're filleting. You can call it an assembly line.
HARRIS: A disassembly line, I guess.
Mr. CAITO: It's a fillet line, is what you call it.
HARRIS: The fish will be packed and trucked south to San Francisco and points beyond, where the succulent fillets are sought and savored as part of a healthy diet. The bustle is a scene Jim Caito's father enjoyed, and his grandfather, and his great-grandfather, who arrived on these shores in the late 1880s.
Mr. CAITO: Our ancestors came over from Italy, landed in San Francisco and they were processing groundfish, and we just kind of followed suit. Family business. As a kid I filleted.
HARRIS: And you still have all your fingers.
Mr. CAITO: Uh-huh. I got a few cuts, but I still have all my fingers.
(Soundbite of seagulls)
HARRIS: Step out on the dock in front of Caito's, though, and things don't look so bountiful. Up and down the harbor are empty buildings. Thirty years ago, this port was home to half a dozen processing plants.
Mr. CAITO: And they're all gone. We're the only ones left.
HARRIS: These days, only seven boats head out to sea from Fort Bragg to trawl the bottom for Dover sole, cod, whiting and similar species. That means business is slow next door to Caito's, where Tommy Ancona's fishing supply store has been in business for 40 years.
Mr. TOMMY ANCONA (Owner, Fishing Supply Store): People always say this, oh my God, the fishing industry has gone away, it's gone away. Well, you know what? You got to kind of think back at how it's evolved.
HARRIS: Back in the heyday, he says, fish were treated like they were giant redwood trees or gold, something to be extracted for quick profit. But in the past couple of decades, rules designed to stop that overexploitation inevitably meant cutting back on the number of boats.
Mr. ANCONA: We're down to a core group of fishermen now.
HARRIS: Five years ago, many fishermen who trawled for groundfish agreed to give up their boats for a lump sum of cash. That dramatically reduced the size of the fleet. There are now only about 160 bottom trawlers left in California, Oregon and Washington. And the ones who remain, though by constitution fiercely independent people, now work within a very complex set of rules and regulations.
Mr. ANCONA: It's not a wide open industry any more. It's all highly regulated and so you know, if there's anything going wrong, it's in the management.
HARRIS: Ancona says there are things going wrong, so he's part of an effort to change the management rules, which are set by a federal commission called the Pacific Fishery Management Council. Thanks to the council's efforts, the fish are doing OK, he says. It's now the industry that's in trouble.
(Soundbite of metal striking metal)
HARRIS: Two hundred miles up the coast, Randy Smith is gearing up his bottom trawler in Crescent City. His boat is one of just three at this port that still goes out for groundfish like sole.
(Soundbite of metal striking metal)
Mr. RANDY SMITH (Fisherman): Where's that boom tack?
Unidentified Man: I don't know, buddy.
HARRIS: With a heavy beard and a baseball cap, this 51-year-old fisherman says things are good for him personally.
Mr. SMITH: Right now, trawl fisheries is actually better than I've ever seen it. There's more fish now than any time in my life.
HARRIS: That's basically because there are far fewer boats out there trying to catch the fish. Even so, Randy Smith's share of the catch didn't increase as much as he expected when he agreed to buy out his colleagues. That's partly because the allowable catch factors in a certain amount of waste.
Mr. SMITH: Right now we're on a two month quota. We're given so much fish that we can catch in two months, period. Well, that creates waste, because when you meet the quota and you go over the quota, you got to throw fish away.
HARRIS: Dead fish just get dumped overboard. Smith says he can't help that if he wants to work within the rules.
Mr. SMITH: The nets on the bottom and you can't see it, and if you tow for 15 minutes too long you could have too much fish.
HARRIS: To address that and other problems, the Pacific Fishery Management Council recently approved a major change to the rules. They're instituting a new scheme called individual transferable quotas.
Here's how they work. Smith will get a quota he can fill throughout an entire year, so he'll only have one deadline to worry about, not six. And he doesn't have to catch all the fish himself. He can buy, sell or trade quotas. So for example, if he accidentally catches too many Dover sole, he can get on the radio and buy shares of Dover quota from another fisherman instead of dumping his fish, dead, back into the sea. Randy Smith says whether it works for him or not depends on the details, which are yet to be worked out.
Mr. SMITH: I don't know if it's going to be a good or a bad thing yet.
HARRIS: The whole thing makes him uneasy about the future.
Mr. SMITH: I have five kids and none of them are going to go fishing. I mean, I can still make a real good living, you know. Some of the kids went to college and stuff. But I don't know where things are headed. I don't like it.
HARRIS: It's not just the change in fishing rules that worries him. He's concerned that more and more areas will be declared off limits to bottom trawling, since the nets can disturb delicate cold-water coral on the seafloor.
(Soundbite of seagulls)
HARRIS: Back in Fort Bragg, the potential rule changes are also worrisome to Jim Caito at the fish processing plant. He expects that about half the fishermen who get the quotas will eventually just sell them off, leaving the fleet even smaller than it is today.
Mr. CAITO: You shrink it down that small, the boats are going to have a lot of fish to catch. There's no question about that.
HARRIS: But there may be only three or four boats left in Fort Bragg to provide him with groundfish throughout the year.
Mr. CAITO: You know, it could be that our vessels here sell their quota or lease their quota to someone in Oregon or Washington, and want to retire and get out of the business and we're left with no fish. And if we don't have groundfish, I mean, we won't be here to do crabs, salmon. Because without groundfish, you won't be able to stay in business.
HARRIS: He says the fishing port simply can't get much smaller and still hope to survive. Richard Harris, NPR News.
MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.