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An Environmental Success Story for Fishing on America’s West Coast


In this Dec. 11, 2019 photo, Kevin Dunn, who fishes off the coasts of Oregon and Washington, holds a rockfish at a processing facility in Warrenton, Oregon. (AP Photo/Gillian Flaccus)
An Environmental Success Story for Fishing on America’s West Coast
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A rare environmental success story is taking place on the West Coast of the United States.

The numbers of groundfish have greatly increased in recent years. The term groundfish describes a number of fish species that live near the bottom of the Pacific.

Shems Jud is the regional director for the Environmental Defense Fund’s ocean program. “It’s really a conservation home run,” he said, adding, “It’s the biggest environmental story that no one knows about.”

Bottom trawling

On January first, regulators will reopen a large area to bottom trawling: a form of fishing that uses nets to catch fish near the bottom of the ocean. The change will take effect in an area off the coast of the states of Oregon and California. The move even comes with the approval of environmental groups that were once the trawling industry’s biggest enemies.

In the 1980s, bottom trawling was very successful, with 500 boats in California, Oregon and Washington. They caught about 91 million kilograms of groundfish each year.

But bottom trawlers overfished. Many species of rockfish, slow-growing creatures with spiny fins, were the hardest hit.

In the late 1990s, scientists began to worry about decreasing fish numbers. By 2005, trawlers brought in just one fourth of their yearly catch during the 1980s.

In this Dec. 11, 2019 photo, Kevin Dunn, a trawler who fishes for groundfish, stands next to his boat as he speaks on the phone with a fish processor at the docks in Warrenton, Oregon. A rare environmental success story is unfolding in waters off the U.S. West Coast as regulators in January 2020 are scheduled to reopen a large area off the coasts of Oregon and California to groundfish bottom trawling fishing less than two decades after authorities closed huge stretches of the Pacific Ocean due to the species' depletion. (AP Photo/Gillian Flaccus)
In this Dec. 11, 2019 photo, Kevin Dunn, a trawler who fishes for groundfish, stands next to his boat as he speaks on the phone with a fish processor at the docks in Warrenton, Oregon. A rare environmental success story is unfolding in waters off the U.S. West Coast as regulators in January 2020 are scheduled to reopen a large area off the coasts of Oregon and California to groundfish bottom trawling fishing less than two decades after authorities closed huge stretches of the Pacific Ocean due to the species' depletion. (AP Photo/Gillian Flaccus)

Today 75 boats are involved in trawling, said Brad Pettinger. He is the former director of the Oregon Trawl Commission. “We really wiped out the industry for a number of years,” Pettinger said.

Quotas and changing fishing practices

In 2011, trawlers received limits, known as quotas, defining how much of each species they could catch. If they went over the limit, they had to buy permission to use the quota of other fishermen.

Fishermen quickly learned to avoid areas with many banned species, and began trying to catch fewer banned fish.

Studies soon showed groundfish numbers increasing — in some cases, 50 years faster than predicted. Accidental trawling of overfished species fell by 80 percent.

As the quota system’s success became clear, environmentalists and trawlers began to talk. Then, regulators reconsidered the trawling rules. Both sides wanted their voices to be heard in the process.

Seth Atkinson is a lawyer with the nonprofit group Natural Resources Defense Council. “All we could do on our end is make a good-faith offer, and I really credit the guys in the industry for taking that up,” he said. “These were tough compromises.”

Last year, regulators approved a plan to reopen the Rockfish Conservation Area to fishing. They also banned future trawling in very deep waters. The plan also noted that some places important to fish reproduction were barred to fisherman, including a large area near Southern California.

Not a lot of demand

Trawlers could harvest as much as 54 million kilograms of fish a year. But there is currently only demand for about half that much. Many Americans have grown up without ever tasting groundfish. These fish have been replaced in stores by farmed fish or foreign species like tilapia.

A trade association called Positively Groundfish is trying to increase public interest with food festivals and trade shows. They talk about the industry’s new sustainability. They give fish away, too.

Jana Hennig is the association’s executive director. She said, “People are so surprised to hear…that you can manage a fishery so well that it actually bounces back to abundance.”

I’m John Russell.

Gillian Flaccus reported on this story for the Associated Press. John Russell adapted it for Learning English. Mario Ritter, Jr. was the editor.

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Words in This Story

species -- n. biology : a group of animals or plants that are similar and can produce young animals or plants : a group of related animals or plants that is smaller than a genus

conservation – n. the protection of animals, plants, and natural resources

regulator – n. an official who works for the part of the government that controls a public activity (such as banking or insurance) by making and enforcing rules

manage -- v. to have control of (something, such as a business, department, sports team, etc.)

bounce back -- phrasal verb : to return quickly to a normal condition after a difficult situation or event

abundance – n. a large amount of something : an abundant amount of something

sustainability – n. involving methods that do not completely use up or destroy natural resources

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