ASTORIA - If the strong feelings and conflicting opinions expressed at a July 13 public forum to discuss individual fishing quotas are any indication, the fisheries management agency will have an extremely difficult time pleasing everyone when it drafts a document outlining alternatives to how groundfish should be caught.

An individual fishing quota, or IFQ (sometimes referred to as ITQ), is a fisheries management method that divides up the total allowable catch of a fishery among different fishermen or boats. Each individual would be given a certain percentage of the total catch, which they can harvest throughout the year.

This is in contrast to the current system for catching groundfish, in which limits are set for the entire fishery for two months at a time, which some in the industry say is inefficient and wasteful.

The Pacific Fishery Management Council, which sets regional fishery policy, is taking public comments on a proposal to switch to an IFQ system for groundfish trawlers. During this public scoping phase, the group is having two meetings in Seattle and Newport to hear comments after which they will draft an environmental impact statement for options.

For people who aren't near those areas to express their opinions, the Pacific Marine Conservation Council, the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations and the Marine Fish Conservation Network are hosting a series of public meetings, one of which took place last week in Astoria, attended by several Pacific County fishermen.

"We're hoping that we spark some dialogue and get some different points of view," said Peter Huhtala, senior policy director of the conservation council.

Huhtala began the meeting with a presentation on IFQs, in which he said that although quotas could bring flexibility to the industry, there are dangers in the system that have to be addressed.

Dividing up the catch could be construed as giving individuals rights to a public resource and could also result in a consolidation of the industry and loss of family businesses, he said.

"It will create winners and losers," said Huhtala. "Longtime fishermen could be forced out of business because of the initial allocation."

National standards?Tony DeFalco of the Marine Fish Conservation Network said although his group is not for or against a quota system per se, it is pushing for a national set of standards to be adopted before IFQs are established.

"Once public resources are privatized, it's immensely difficult to return those to public status," said DeFalco, the network's west coast regional organizer. National standards should make it clear that quota shares are not a property right, and should set time limits for how long individuals can hold the shares, he said.

Once the forum was opened to questions and discussion, the range of opinions was evident.

"My message on IFQ is pretty short," said Ilwaco crab fisherman Dale Beasley. "Just say no."

He said that although he catches crab, he holds permits for five other species which he doesn't catch, and has held these permits for 35 years. If IFQs were set for those fisheries, he wouldn't receive any shares and loose the opportunity to change what species he catches, he said.

Others see the IFQs as a deterrent to competition.

"I'm opposed to the concept of one fisherman having an advantage over another fisherman that he can't overcome," said Dick Sheldon. He said that he has watched the crab fishery go to a two-tiered system in which some crabbers were allowed to use 300 pots, while the more productive ones were allowed to use 500 pots.

"We should allow people to compete on even terms," said Sheldon. "I'm against gifting by the state or federal government."

InvestmentFor others at the meeting, quota allocations would not be a gift, but the result of investments by the fishermen.

"There's a lot of vested income in this business; it's not a handout," said Tom Morrison, a trawl fishermen from Warrenton. "The fishery is essentially divvied up right now - there's no way anyone can enter," he added, because the catch is regulated by permits.

Although there are examples from other fisheries of how IFQs can fail, the current quota system for catching groundfish in British Columbia is considered a success, said Brad Pettinger, administrator with the Oregon Trawl Commission. "It's not like this is an unknown."

The stability that comes from a fisherman knowing that they can catch a certain amount in the future would also be a big benefit of quota programs, said Pettinger, since it would allow for financial planning and perhaps more family wage jobs.

"I think one of the things IFQs can do is that people see a future in it," he said. "We can recruit people into the industry."

Fishermen know the industry best, said others at the forum, and know how to take care of their livelihood.

"If they would just give fishermen our quotas, we could handle it," said Bob Williams. "The conservation is our responsibility." Trawl fishermen know how to avoid endangered species, he said, and also know the fluctuations of the fisheries better than the fishery managers do.

Kent Craford of the newly formed Coastal Jobs Coalition, which represents sectors of the fishing industry "from the ocean to the dinner table," added that his group advocates for equal representation of the fishermen and the processors. Just as fishermen invest in boats and equipment, processing plants invest in their infrastructure, and so should have a guarantee of some fish coming through their facilities.

"There needs to be something in it for processors; they have capital investments as well," said Craford. He added that there's a need to "recognize that those jobs are just as important as jobs on boats."

"We need to improve on what we're doing, and there's room to do it," said David Jincks, who is also on the fishery management's IFQ committee, who predicted that this will be a much scrutinized and debated issue. "To 'just say no' right now I think is really unfair."

The forum's organizers encouraged participants to send their comments to the Fisher Management Council, which will accept public comments until Aug. 2.

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