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Opportunity trawls 

In the wake of yet another decision by the California Department of Fish and Game to turn off Central Coast marine waters to commercial fishing, a change in tactics by an international green group may give beleaguered local anglers a way out.
 
The Nature Conservancy, a Virginia-based eco-lobby group, announced on June 27 the purchase of six federal trawling permits and four trawling boats from a group of Morro Bay fisherman. The effort—designed to reward fisherman for jettisoning ecologically damaging trawling practices—marks the first time an environmental group has taken this approach.
 
Julie Benson of the Conservatory said that the organization is withholding the amounts paid to the fishermen since the group is still negotiating the purchase of other active permits in the region. Trawling permits, however, consistently run in the hundreds of thousands. The first batch of commercial fisherman to sell their permits included Gordon Fox, Chris Kubiak, David Kubiak, Bill Diller, and D&J Fisheries.
 
The move was the latest effort in a campaign by the Conservatory to curb or limit trawling practices in the region. Trawling involves dragging weighted nets along the sea floor to trap cod and other low-value groundfish.
 
“That area (around Morro Bay) has some very special habitat; it’s unique not only to the Central Coast but to the eastern Pacific,� Chuck Cook, the organization’s marine director, explained of the decision to sample this program in the region.
 
The group reported that it plans to shelve the permits and possibly modify the fishing boats into research vessels. It also hopes to lease future permits to area fisherman using more selective means of catching groundfish.
 
Environmentalists complained for decades that trawling nets permanently damage coastal ecosystems, but the sheer volume of seafood harvested sustained many local fishing operations. The bitter relationship between the industry and conservation groups changed slightly when the groundfish market tanked at the turn of the century.
 
The industry saw revenues from Pacific trawling fall from $110 million in 1987 to $35 million in 2003, largely as a result of overharvesting. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recently changed the status of six species of native groundfish to “depleted.�
 
Last summer, the Morro Bay Commercial Fisherman’s Association negotiated a trawling ban with the Conservancy in front of the Pacific Fishery Management Council. That ban protected 3.8 million acres of coastal waters from trawling nets. The prohibition zone fell between Santa Barbara’s Point Conception and Monterey’s Point Sur and went into affect just last month.
 
“Degraded seafloor communities and several depleted fish species will now get the chance to recover, and the fishing industry will now have the opportunity to work with nongovernmental organizations and regulators to create new high-value markets,� Cook said.
 
The June 27 purchase agreement arrived five days after a decision by California Fish and Game to revoke 44 square miles of Central Coast waters in order to establish marine protected areas under the 1999 Marine Life Protection Act. Fisherman in Morro Bay protested the action.
 

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