Sustainable fishing for short-spine thornyhead off the coast of Big Sur, California. Photo by Bridget Besaw/Aurora Open/Corbis


The good catch

Hope for the world’s devastated oceans rests on a change in the hearts of the fishermen that know them best

by Megan Molteni + BIO

Sustainable fishing for short-spine thornyhead off the coast of Big Sur, California. Photo by Bridget Besaw/Aurora Open/Corbis

It’s Sunday morning a few weeks before Christmas and the ice is flowing at North T‑Pier. The small crew of the South Bay holds a dockside chute as it unloads pound after pound of ice into the trawler’s hold. Captain Rob Seitz leans out of a door and shouts instructions to his teenage son Jentry. The boat leaves at midnight and they’re prepping the 56-footer for a four-day trip to fishing grounds near Morro Bay, on California’s Central Coast. Inside the maple-panelled wheelhouse, Seitz’s logbook — the record of all his trips this year — rests next to a stack of battered volumes: Albert Camus’s The Plague, Charles Frazier’s Nightwoods, The American Heritage Dictionary. His kids grin from photographs crammed into the moulding while he goes over today’s to‑do list: after the ice, groceries, then fuel, and at some point, probably a nap.

‘Used to be, the first three days I would stay awake straight,’ he tells me, wincing slightly and running a hand through his thick, greying hair. ‘But I just can’t do that anymore.’

Nor does he have to. For Seitz and a handful of other fishermen in California, the testosterone-frenzied, fish-till-you-drop lifestyle is becoming a thing of the past. This is no accident. Rather, it is the deliberate work of old enemies who have teamed up in the face of environmental tragedy to chart a new course in collaborative resource management. If the venture is successful, it could not only revolutionise the way the American fishing fleet does business: it might forever alter the way we think about our planet’s last great frontier.

Seitz is the face of this bold experiment — a trawl-boat captain who uprooted his family for the chance to redefine what it means to be a fisherman, and pass on that legacy to the next generation. He has made the ultimate gamble. He has bet his livelihood on an idea: for his grandchildren to live in a world where fish swim free and wild, the change that needs to happen isn’t in net sizes or catch caps but in the hearts and minds of people called to a life at sea. Starting with himself.

In the opening pages of End of the Line (2006), Charles Clover’s manifesto on the modern fishing industry, he asks us to imagine a band of hunters in all-terrain vehicles dragging a mile-wide net across the Serengeti. Picture lions and cheetahs swept up with herds of wildebeest and impala, endangered rhinos and elephants, all entangled, with only the smallest juveniles able to slip through the net’s tight weave. Left behind is a rutted deathscape, littered by the bloodied bodies of the animals for whom there is no market — about a third of the net’s take. Were this to happen, it would spark a media-fuelled storm of outrage. And yet this does happen every day, in every ocean in the world, and has done for decades.

For as long as humans have walked on two legs, there have been fishermen. Babylonian frescoes, Egyptian tomb reliefs, and Mayan stelae all depict one of mankind’s oldest professions. And for thousands of years, being a seagoing fisherman meant confronting your own mortality daily — boats were small, waters uncharted, and a watery grave was a fate to be expected. But in the US, by the middle of the 20th century, technological advances started to change everything. Boats and nets got bigger. Equipped with freezers, they could stay out longer, and sonar made it easier to find their quarry.

The modernisation of the world’s fishing fleets was good for fishermen, but it was very bad for fish. Looking back at historical catch data, scientists estimate that the marine biomass of open-ocean communities declined by 80 per cent within 15 years of industrialised exploitation. The ocean has lost more than 90 per cent of its large predatory fishes — iconic species such as the bluefin tuna, the Atlantic cod, and the Pacific halibut.

How did this happen in less than a century? The simple answer is hubris. The notion that we could take and take from the seemingly limitless bounty of the sea without consequences has permeated everything from governmental policy to management efforts to fishing culture for decades. You see it in the government-subsidised expansion of the US fishing fleet despite falling catch rates; in modern management strategies that enabled fishermen to catch as much as possible in a given time frame; in a supply chain that encourages opacity and deceit at every stage. However, the more complicated answer is that we have managed (and mismanaged) economic incentives, consumer markets, scientific data, environmental policy and, above all, individual accountability. Fishermen get much of the blame for the state in which we find ourselves — this ‘race to the last fish’ — but they didn’t build this system by themselves. They are, however, the ones with the power to change it.

When Rob Seitz was growing up in Fairbanks, Alaska, he didn’t play sports or do much studying. Instead, he’d spend weeknights and weekends out at sea with his grandfather, fishing for salmon and halibut. In 1988, he took up fishing full-time. The next year, the Exxon Valdez ran aground in Prince William Sound, spilling 11 million gallons of crude oil into Alaska’s icy waters. The disaster shut down the salmon fishery, and over the next decade Seitz was forced to cobble together a living in less lucrative fisheries. By the time things recovered, aquaculture (or fish farming) had come to the US, and in 2000 prices for salmon plummeted. That was the end of Seitz’s fishing career in Alaska. He drifted south, eventually landing in Astoria, Oregon, a fishing port perched at the mouth of the Columbia River, and home to the third-largest fish processor in the world.

That same year, 750 miles further south, California’s Morro Bay fishery was officially declared a federal disaster. Like so many ports along America’s coastline, Morro Bay had seen the advent of enormous trawlers that destroyed local marine wildlife in just a few decades. Between 1986 and 2000, fish landings and economic revenue in Morro Bay fell by more than 80 per cent. This was emblematic of fisheries the world over — starting in 1988, global catch estimates show a steady decline of more than 300,000 tons per year. In Morro Bay, a common story began to unfold. Stocks collapsed. Processors left town. Regulators stepped in. The Pacific Fishery Management Council and the National Marine Fisheries Service spent $30 million to buy out fishermen who were willing to get out of the business — about 40 per cent of the town’s fleet. By 2002, the remaining fishermen were getting desperate. That year, under pressure from a federal mandate, the regulators announced they would be making large closures up and down the California coast, to protect fish habitat and prohibit trawling. While the size of the closure was to be dictated by regulatory agencies, the exact boundaries were open to public input. And this was where the nation’s largest environmental group — the Nature Conservancy — saw an opportunity to step in.

The notion that we could take and take from the seemingly limitless bounty of the sea without consequences has permeated everything

The conservancy quickly realised that, to establish the right boundaries for the closures, it would have to go to the very people who were fighting to keep the fishing grounds open. ‘What the fishermen had was a deep local knowledge of the habitats of certain species,’ Michael Bell, a senior project director with the conservancy, told The New York Times in November 2011. ‘There wasn’t scientific information at that level that could match the fisherman knowledge.’

So Bell went to the fishermen of Morro Bay to ask for help. The proposition was this: either work with us, sharing your knowledge to create a proposal for the new closures — of which we’ll help mitigate the financial burdens — or don’t, and let the regulators put the lines wherever they want.

Fishermen were torn. To work with environmentalists would mean allegations of ‘sleeping with the enemy’ from friends and colleagues. On the other hand, any other economic opportunities had left town with the processing plants. Eventually, out of the 23 permit-holders approached, 13 fishermen volunteered to sell their permits and six of those also sold their boats to the conservancy. Other fishermen began sharing their knowledge of areas needing protection for breeding grounds and juvenile fish habitat. ‘They realised this was a chance for them to shape their destiny a bit,’ said Bell. And so, together, the conservancy and the fishermen came to the council with a plan for the closures.

By 2006, this unlikely partnership had resulted in the creation of 3.8 million acres of protected fish habitat — all of it off-limits to trawling, and with stricter regulations for other kinds of fishing. It also made the conservancy the second-largest fishing permit-holder on the west coast — unprecedented for an environmental group. For decades, the typical dynamic in US fisheries consisted of fishermen pushing the limits of what scientists said was sustainable, management agencies not doing enough, and environmentalists filing lawsuits. This didn’t do much for how environmentalists and fishermen felt about each other. The conservancy’s move changed everything. Other environmental groups had bought boats and licences in order to retire them and relieve pressure on fish stocks, but no other conservation group had become a significant stakeholder in the fishing industry. ‘Before that, we had an advocacy role only,’ said Bell, ‘and now we were at the table with assets.’

But what to do with those assets? The conservancy wanted to find a fishery model based on collaboration, which would work for both the environment and economics — a model that would break from the practices that caused the decline in the first place. Rather than taking boats and permits out of action, they decided to lease some back, provided fishermen agreed to new sustainable practices. These included switching gear to traps and hook-and-line, updating catch-reporting technology, and sharing that information with the conservancy for research and monitoring purposes. Those fishermen who agreed to the new conditions got a special exempted permit to fish Morro Bay’s waters.

The plan wasn’t popular with everyone. ‘Fishing was our heritage,’ Andrea Lueker, then assistant City Manager, told me. ‘And we were very concerned we were going to lose fishing in Morro Bay.’ The conservancy realised that in order to get the full support of a city built on trawl fishing, they would have to resurrect the trawl fleet. They had the boats, but no one to captain them by their rules. They needed new blood.

Robert Seitz aboard the trawler South Bay. Photo courtesy

Back in Oregon, Rob Seitz was having something of an existential crisis. After six years of gruelling work aboard crabbing boats, tuna boats, salmon boats and anyone else who would take him, he had his first captain’s job. He also had a wife and four kids. Seitz found himself wishing he were going to his kids’ football games rather than getting his butt kicked for a few more pounds of crab. But if he weren’t out there, someone else would be. And that meant money in someone else’s wallet instead of on his mortgage. He felt trapped. And he worried about the kind of legacy he was leaving his children.

Then one day, he picked a book of home remedies off his in-laws’ coffee table and flipped to the chapter titled ‘midlife crisis’. Inside, he found a passage from Carl Jung: it said that when you’re young you separate yourself from society so that you can go out and create value for your own life, but once you have children there is a desire to return to society, to meet social goals rather than personal ones. Seitz was intrigued and sought out more of Jung’s work, until one day the message became clear: life isn’t about personal gain, it’s about trying to make the world a better place in which your young can grow up. The revelation brought relief.

‘I realised that all this time I’d been thinking, “I’m a victim.” Things happened to me and all I did was complain about it,’ Seitz said. He didn’t want to suffer at the hands of a broken system any longer: he wanted to change it and himself. So when he heard that Morro Bay was looking for a trawler, he jumped at the opportunity. It was a chance to build up a whole new system that rewarded fishermen for making sustainable choices.

As Seitz was moving his family south, further monumental changes were hitting the California’s Central Coast. At the beginning of 2011, the Pacific Fishery Management Council switched the fishery to a catch-share model. This controversial management strategy gives each boat a percentage of an overall annual catch limit. Boat owners can buy, sell or trade parts of their quotas like stock market shares. Rather than a race for a common resource, this new model establishes property rights in fisheries — the idea being that fishermen can plan for the future, and management can place firmer limits to the catch.

That’s what the success of this radical fishery rests on — tying economic incentives to environmental sustainability, all anchored in a community

But Morro Bay’s fishermen felt exposed by the new regulations. If any of their boats landed too much of a sensitive species, it would have to stay docked until it could buy up another boat’s unused quota; an accidental catch could cost them $135,000. Borrowing an idea from the insurance industry, Morro Bay fishermen teamed up with other boats in Fort Bragg and Half Moon Bay. Each fisherman put his quota for sensitive species into a shared risk pool. Together with conservancy scientists, and working with data collected by eCatch (an electronic reporting system), they came up with fishing plans to minimise the chance of running into sensitive species. Now, if a fisherman accidentally ran into trouble, he’d have an insurance policy in the risk pool. A month later, the system was tested when a boat near Fort Bragg caught six pounds of yelloweye rockfish, the rarest of the overfished species. The risk pool’s annual total was just 75 pounds. Fishermen saw the results coming in on their iPads and got on the phone. Within a day or two, they put a closure on that area. According to Bell, it was the first time he’d heard of fishermen voluntarily closing fishing grounds. ‘They realised, “This is ours, we need to manage it responsibly”,’ he said. The tragedy of the commons had become a managed commons — just as described by Elinor Ostrom, the Nobel Prize winner in economics who saw how communities can regulate themselves to care for common resources if given the right conditions.

That same month, Seitz bought a rusty vessel named the South Bay that had been sitting unused in the Morro Bay harbour for years. The conservancy finally had their trawler.

Heat radiates off the blacktop in a far corner of a shopping centre parking lots where white tents huddle against the midmorning sun. Margie Hurd is already packing up her table. She operates a community-supported fishery: delivering fillets of fish to your door, just like community-supported agriculture delivers vegetables. She also sells at farmer’s markets like this one in San Luis Obispo. The market’s not over yet, but she’s already sold out. The fisherman whose fillets she was selling was Rob Seitz: he made an appearance at her stand that morning, which is why they flew out of her cooler so quickly. ‘People like putting a face to their fish,’ she says. Which can be difficult, as most fishermen don’t enjoy crowds or people, or answering a million questions about their product. There’s a reason why they gravitate toward the solitude of the open ocean.

But not Rob Seitz. He started going to the farmer’s markets to tell people that there is an environmentally friendly way to do trawl fishing. He makes shorter tows, uses a smaller net, and goes only where he’ll catch target species. And he tells them about the numbers — that by-catch in the risk pool is down to less than half a per cent, half as much as the rest of the west coast fleet.

For Seitz, the farmer’s market and the community-supported fishery also serve a purpose beyond education: diversifying the ways he can sell his fish. Most fishermen have no other option besides showing up to port and having their holds emptied out by a processor who pays whatever is deemed fair. It’s quick, it’s easy, it doesn’t always pay well, but it’s the way it’s done. For most, the job of getting the fish out of the ocean is hard enough. But Seitz had his eyes set on doing business a little differently when he moved to Morro Bay. ‘It dawned on me that if I could get paid 10 times as much for what I’m catching, then I can catch 10 times less,’ he said. ‘When you’re delivering Dover sole for 25 cents a pound and it’s $8.99 in the store, you start wondering, if you did something differently, could you improve your margins?’

So Seitz found a number of high-end Asian restaurants in San Francisco looking for live fish. With the shorter tows, everything comes out kicking, so all Seitz had to do was put a few totes on his deck rigged up with an aeration system and he could deliver live shortspine thornyheads — known as red dragons on Asian menus — at a premium price. All of a sudden, the same fish he had been catching went from 50 cents to $5 a pound. By cutting out the middleman, Seitz could charge higher rates and see more returned directly to him. It’s a challenge all the fishermen in the risk pool are grappling with: how to see a real economic return for the environmental stewardship they practise. That’s what the success of this radical fishery rests on — tying economic incentives to environmental sustainability, all anchored in a community that has been empowered to care for a shared resource. Accomplishing that will be the true test of whether the Nature Conservancy’s Morro Bay experiment can be called a success.

Under pressure from Seitz, the conservancy hired an economic consulting firm to conduct market analyses for the risk-pool participants. The venture will explore how fishermen can use traceability, sustainability certifications and branding to make sure that an extra dollar paid at a seafood counter is an extra dollar in that fisherman’s pocket. Both Seitz and Bell feel this is the most important step toward getting other fisheries to emulate Morro Bay. ‘The best way to get any fisherman to do anything is to show them another fisherman that’s successful at it,’ Seitz said.

It’s just before midnight when Seitz and his crew arrive at the pier after a long day of preparations. They cross the silent landing to where the South Bay bobs in the dark water. Seitz clambers up to the wheelhouse and flips on blinding lights mounted high above the deck. The engine rumbles to life. If all goes well, they’ll return early Wednesday morning, the hold heavy with sole, thornyheads and buckets of live dragonfish. This trip will be Seitz’s 36th of the year, and his last of 2012. Most of his trips last three to four days, putting him on the water about a third of the year: less time on the boat than he’s ever spent in three decades of fishing. Now, there’s more time at home with his family, going to his kids’ school events, and watching them race around the nearby skatepark.

He also uses the extra time to think up ways to expand the fishery project. He wants to see his fish on school lunch trays as part of a lean, locally sourced diet. He reads books such as Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006) and worries about childhood obesity. He wants to recruit high‑school kids to the life of a sustainable fisherman, but only because they’re interested in it, not because it’s their fallback. The way to do that, he says with a smile both sincere and wry, is twofold: education, and driving a nice pickup truck — that’s how the kids judge success.

Seitz hopes that one day one of his sons will captain the South Bay. After a few more years, Seitz will have local knowledge to bequeath, as well as the quota, permits and boat. ‘If I can pass that on to him, it will be a lot more business than it will be an adventure,’ Seitz said. That is what the Morro Bay experiment is all about — redefining the fisherman of the 21st century. No longer a lone hunter braced at the helm, but rather a businessman, an educator and a steward of the sea. If the next generation of fishermen see that when they look in the mirror, there might be hope for our oceans after all.