ILWACO - A federal buy-back program which went into effect this week in an effort to save the West Coast groundfish population and has all but wiped out commercial trawl fishing fleets in many coastal towns will not directly affect fishers on the Peninsula.
However, some local fishermen fear that there will be a definite backlash from the deal that may severely harm the local Dungeness crab fishery.
The National Marine Fisheries Service has offered a hefty sum of money to owners of commercial fishing vessels used for trawling for bottom fish like cod and rockfish, as well as crab and shrimp. In the coastal town of Crescent City, Calif., 14 of the 15 trawling boat owners eligible for the buyout have done so in the last week. Some fishers in the Astoria/Warrenton area have also sold out.
Owners sold their fishing permits and signed away their right to use their vessel for fishing of any kind, anywhere, ever again. In exchange for this, the owners will receive $497,000. Those that sold their rights and their licenses can however use the money received from the government to buy smaller boats and fish for crab, salmon or the like.
Port of Ilwaco manager Mack Funk said that Peninsula fishermen aren't eligible for the buyout due to the fact that there really isn't much of a groundfish population here.
"We don't have any active ground-fishermen in Ilwaco," said Funk on Monday. "In Ilwaco, we have only the whiting fishery, which is kind of a mid level fishery. There isn't a buyout on that species right now."
The idea is that by buying out a number of the boats, fewer groundfish will be harvested, thus replenishing their population. Those ground-fishers who remain will be allowed to catch 50 percent more than before the buyout. But these remaining fishers will be paying for those who were bought out - each time a fisherman sells his catch, about 1.3 percent of the earnings go back to the federal government to pay off the loan taken out to buy out the other fishermen.
Local crabber and tuna fisherman Dale Beasley said Tuesday that he fears that the fishermen who received the buyout dollars will purchase smaller crabbing boats and move in on that fishery.
"These fishermen are going get bored sitting at home," he said. "It's pretty easy to get a crab permit and get a crab boat. It will set up another overcapitalization - too many boats chasing too little product."
Overcapitalization is how Beasley describes how things have gotten to this point with the groundfish. He gave the example of how when one fishery goes bad, the emphasis shifts to another one, causing an overcapitalization of that crop, depleting it, much like the groundfish are today.
He said when the deal was being made with the federal government regarding the buyouts, Washington fishers voted that when a fisherman agreed to the buyout, he would also lose the right to crab for 10 years, so that the current crab fishery isn't flooded with new fishers. Beasley said that if Oregon and California fishers had voted the same way, it would have been made part of the buyout agreement. But according to Beasley, they failed to live up to their end.
"It's an oversight that's going to come back and bite us I'm afraid," he said. "The Dungeness [fishery] is healthy, but it's not as healthy as you think."
But how long down the road would local fishers be seeing a backlash from this deal?
"One, two, three years down the road," said Beasley. The potential here is to crowd adjacent fisheries here, like crab, I'm afraid."
Beasley said he can see that this deal will probably be good for the groundfish population, but it will also have an effect on local infrastructure, especially in the Astoria area where boat repair yards and related businesses will suffer with fewer large fishing boats in port.
The federal government bought a total of 92 trawling vessels between Morrow Bay, Calif. and Bellingham, Wash., equal to nearly half of the ground-fishing fleet on the West Coast since the buyout went into effect.