Trawlers Get Their Sea Legs

Sea trawlers | BCBusiness

While the salmon fishery is on the ropes and may never recover, trawlers, once-reviled “draggers” of the ocean bottom, have staged a remarkable comeback, thanks to an unlikely alliance between grizzled old salts and relentless environmentalists

Reg Richards sits in the wheelhouse of his 30-metre trawler, the EJ Saffrick, one hand on a well-worn wooden helm, the other on a perpetually refilled mug of coffee. After a week of bumpy seas trawling 20 kilometres of the west coast of Haida Gwaii, he’s minutes away from tying up at the Jim Pattison Group-owned Canfisco dock in Port Hardy. The holds of the EJ Saffrick are crammed with four tonnes of rockfish. Richards wears a black ball cap that says “Eat Crab” and a T-shirt stretching over a midsection that crests above the waistline of his black sweatpants. A gold wedding band is wrapped around a finger as thick as a Cuban cigar and his forearms are scarred from a lifetime of pulling nets and wrenching boat engines at sea.

“I love to fish. It’s my life,” Richards tells me.

At age 58, he’s weathered his share of ups and downs in the volatile fishing industry. He first signed on as a deckhand in 1972 and hasn’t looked back since. As captain and part-owner of the EJ Saffrick (Pattison owns the other half, he says with a barely contained sneer, prompted by the reminder of consolidation in fleet ownership), he belongs to B.C.’s fleet of 70 groundfish trawlers that ply year-round for more than 25 different species.

Richards eases on the throttle and glides the EJ Saffrick alongside the dock across from another trawler currently off-loading 200 tonnes of hake, mostly destined for markets in Eastern Europe.

To the general public, trawlers, also know as draggers, have long suffered a bad reputation; according to their loudest critics, they are to the ocean what clearcut loggers are to the forests. However, a remarkable transformation has begun to take shape in recent years.

Two decades ago, for Richards to admit in polite company that he was a trawler would have been akin to wearing a T-shirt declaring “Earth First: We’ll Log the Other Planets Later.” Today, however, he holds his head high. Thanks to a precedent-setting agreement between former enemy combatants—on one side, the David Suzuki Foundation and Living Oceans Society, on the other, the trawlers—this once vilified fleet is now one of the most tightly regulated and environmentally progressive commercial fisheries in Canada. And the remarkable thing about this agreement is that it happened independent of government—with the trawlers agreeing to much more in terms of reduced fishing grounds and habitat protections than any dedicated ocean conservationist could have ever expected.

How it came about is a story of enviros and commercial fishermen burying the hatchet. In June 2008, Scott Wallace, senior research scientist for the David Suzuki Foundation, sat down for lunch with two industry representatives: Brian Mose, a lifelong fisherman and member of the Deep Sea Trawlers Association, and Bruce Turris, who heads the Canadian Groundfish Research and Conservation Council, a fishermen-funded organization that works with government on groundfish (the term for bottom-dwelling fish species) research and management.

Wallace soon teamed up with another conservationist, John Driscoll, formerly of the Living Oceans Society, to work on the file, determined to step outside of the traditional adversarial and public outreach paradigm of the environmental NGO and to achieve some measurable conservation improvements on the water. Much to the chagrin of his colleagues within the Suzuki Foundation, Wallace saw potential for common purpose with the trawlers, many of them like Richards, who admits he was complicit in a formerly rapacious, cowboy fishery that was destroying its own livelihood.

Wallace explains that his purpose wasn’t to put trawlers out of work; he wanted to recover and preserve the West Coast groundfish habitat and to enable a healthy and sustainable fishery. This message was music to the ears of both Mose and Turris when the three met in 2008—a time when increasingly intense consumer-based sustainable-seafood awareness programs were threatening to keep their catch off the shelves of big U.S. retailers, and the future looked bleak for West Coast trawlers.

Mose is a fifth-generation fisherman of Danish ancestry and has done well on the water. He owns a trawler, The Frosti, a licence and quota worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, and now spends more time managing boat operations and advocating for the industry than he does at sea. When we meet, it’s at his large home near the Fairwinds Golf Club in Nanoose Bay on Vancouver Island.

Mose hands me a folder full of news clippings dating back to 2009 that document the thumb screws environmental NGOs were applying to the CEOs of major retailers in an effort to force them to adopt sustainable seafood procurement policies. The strategy was having an impact, Mose says, and he was convinced that his industry would have to swim with the times or sink.

Stories like the January 2010 press release distributed by Business Wire were common; this one bore the headline, “Safeway adopts FishWise program of seafood audits, halts sale of grouper, red snapper.” Though this ban was targeted at red snapper caught in the Gulf of Mexico, it was a warning shot to the B.C. groundfish industry. Safeway Inc. had announced plans to implement a policy by 2015 to source all fresh and frozen seafood from “sustainable and traceable” sources. Canada Safeway, the company’s Canadian arm, had forged a partnership with the David Suzuki Foundation’s SeaChoice program to develop its own sustainable seafood policy. Mose remembers receiving a note from a contact at Lusamerica Foods Inc., a San Francisco-based seafood distributor that sells to Costco and Safeway, announcing a commitment to eventually discontinue buying red-listed fish from B.C.’s groundfish fleet. “That was a killer for us,” Mose says.

It was obvious that market pressure would force the trawling industry’s hand. The groundfish fishery is extremely complex, involving several dozen species each with its own quotas. Species include numerous varieties of rockfish, such as yellowtail and rougheye, that are all sold under the generic moniker “red snapper”; other species include dover sole, Pacific cod, rock sole, hake and obscure fish such as shortspine and longspine thornyheads.

Groundfish are important economically: it’s the largest fishery on the west coast of Canada and it keeps processing plants busy year-round. Although the groundfish fleet has suffered the typical economic peaks and valleys of commercial fishing, it has avoided the bust of the salmon fishery. According to B.C. Stats, in 1990 salmon contributed $116.6 million in real GDP to the B.C. economy, while groundfish weighed in at $99.7 million. By 2011 the salmon fishery had dropped to a paltry $9.3 million, while the groundfish sector held its own at close to $40 million. In the same year, groundfish accounted for $134.3 million in annual landed value (the amount that fishermen pocket at the dock), while wild salmon accounted for $46.2 million in landed value.

Groundfish are also complex biologically. Particular varieties of rockfish are astonishingly long-lived: some rougheyes live to 200 years. Consequently, unlike rapidly reproducing salmon stocks with life cycles of between two and five years that enable them to recover relatively quickly from overfishing, these elders of the Pacific Ocean take much longer to reach sexual maturity and therefore many decades to rebound.

Images: Ian Smith/Quest
Reg Richards, captain of the EJ Saffrick,
bears scars attesting to a lifetime of

To be fair, when Mose and Turris met Wallace for lunch, it’s not as though they were coming to the table without a conscience; the trawl fishery had undergone a major evolution starting in 1995, when the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans shut down the entire fleet after realizing that the quota system at the time, which was trip-based, had zero accountability and oversight. This resulted in boat captains wastefully dumping fish at sea to avoid getting nailed for exceeding quota when off-loading at the docks. (Richards, the EJ Saffrick captain, admits he was one of them. “That’s the way it was. Nobody felt good about it,” he says.)

When the groundfish fishery reopened in 1997, it had a completely new look, with a level of accountability that was without precedent in Canada’s commercial fishing sector. The federal government had introduced individual transferable quotas, or ITQs, which give boat owners species-by-species annual quotas, for which they are entirely responsible. Along with that came a complex mechanism for enabling captains to trade, buy and sell quota from other individuals. However, the glue that keeps this quota system together came in the form of third-party monitoring; in the case of the deep offshore trawlers, monitoring means an independent onboard observer who physically counts the fish, species by species, as they are hauled up in the nets. Until last year, the DFO subsidized one-third of the cost of this monitoring; today, however, boat captains are responsible for the entire cost, which amounts to roughly $550 per day per boat. That’s a significant cost when piled onto the expense of operating a trawler. A few years ago Richards shelled out almost $200,000 for a state-of-the-art net monitoring system that allows him to avoid dragging sensitive habitat and damaging gear. More changes were in store: in 2003 the DFO established 164 rockfish conservation areas, representing 20 per cent of rockfish habitat along the B.C. coast.

In spite of these management improvements, when Wallace and the Living Ocean Society’s John Driscoll sat across from Mose and Turris and started talking back in 2008, there was still something about the trawl fleet that put it in the crosshairs of environmental groups, particularly the deep-sea trawlers that drag their nets at depths of between 800 and 1,400 metres along the continental shelf. For decades, deep-water trawling had been the bread and butter for guys like Mose and Richards. After all, they’re called draggers for a reason: trawlers cut swaths through the ocean for as far as 30 kilometres in a single tow, dragging nets held open on either side by massive steel doors. In the process, sponge and coral reef are routinely savaged, broken and hauled up in the nets. For marine scientists, sensitive coral and sponge reefs are to the ocean what a rainforest is to land: repositories of life and biodiversity. This routine habitat destruction placed much of the trawl fleet’s catch in the “don’t touch” category of consumer-focused seafood rating systems. In the case of the Suzuki Foundation’s SeaChoice certification program, rockfish fell in the red “avoid” category. Wallace saw a way to bump the trawlers out of the red into the yellow (“some concerns”) and eventually into the coveted green “best choice” category.

“We had some important common ground,” Mose says of his first meeting with Wallace. “Did we both want rockfish to be abundant in the future for our children? Yes. But here was the big one: Did we both think it’s important that people keep fishing in our communities? The answer was ‘yes.’ Right away I could go back to my guys and say we have some basic agreement.”

After those initial meetings the hard work started. Trawlers could have buried their heads and essentially fished themselves out of jobs, as market pressures came to bear on the industry. The problem for Mose and Turris was how to build consensus among 60 or 70 surly boat captains, many of them with only a high-school education, decades of fishing experience and no particular fondness for anyone who flies under the David Suzuki Foundation or Living Oceans Society flags. Furthermore the demands from the environmentalists were not to be taken lightly: the fleet would have to give up a lot to meet the criteria laid out by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program, considered the gold standard for seafood rating, and the program on whose science both the Suzuki Foundation’s SeaChoice and Vancouver Aquarium’s Ocean Wise programs based their ratings.

“I remember entering a room full of fishermen after yet another meeting with Wallace, and these guys had their fingers on the hand-grenade pins,” Mose says with a laugh. He recalls one instance where he was told by Wallace, at the eleventh hour of hammering out an agreement, that the fishermen would have to relinquish yet more fishing grounds to comply with the Monterey Bay standards.

But in the end, after scouring ocean charts and research data supplied by DFO scientists and rockfish specialists, the fleet and the environmentalists overcame their differences. Fishermen agreed to a 20 per cent reduction in their total fishing area—some 9,000 square kilometres of coastal B.C. waters. In addition, Wallace and his team introduced a habitat quota—a rare and innovative approach that sets limits to habitat damage—that amounted to 4,500 kilograms a year for the entire fleet. It’s a minuscule amount, considering 70 trawlers drag more than 50 million kilograms of fish annually. Two years ago it was common for a boat captain to haul up 1,100 kilograms of sponge or coral in a single tow. The habitat quotas work the same way as species quotas, enabling captains to buy, sell or trade the quota. However, the limit is set so low, and financial penalties are so onerous, that fishermen have a strong incentive to avoid grounds where their nets could run afoul of sensitive reefs, and to share information about any coral or sponge strikes with the rest of the fleet.

In April 2012, after a seemingly endless series of back and forth meetings, the new trawl agreement was written into the DFO’s integrated groundfish management plan. And in April this year, following a year under this new management regime, when Wallace crunched the numbers, compliance exceeded everyone’s expectations. In the first year of the agreement, from a total of 6,622 tows, there were just four boundary infractions and only 10 per cent of the 4,500 kilogram coral and sponge bycatch limit was used.

“We’re operating on the assumption that protecting habitat is good for the ocean and good for the future of this fishery. You’ve got to understand [that] it will be very difficult to measure the direct impacts of protecting this or that coral or sponge reef. So the fishermen deserve a lot of credit,” says Wallace.

Daniel Pauly, a UBC fisheries scientist who heads the Sea Around Us Project funded by U.S.-based Pew Charitable Trusts, has been a tenacious critic of commercial fisheries around the world. He’s known for bold and sometimes controversial statements, such as his prediction of a bleak future when commercial fishing will have strip-mined the ocean, leaving behind nothing but jellyfish and plankton soup. However, he sets his sword aside when assessing B.C.’s groundfish fleet and its partnership with environmental scientists. “Scott [Wallace] was more patient with these guys than I would have ever been, and the industry responded well and was responsible,” Pauly says over the phone from his UBC office. “Such collaboration is extremely rare.”
While the NGOs and trawlers hammered out a deal, the DFO remained on the sidelines, providing a supportive role with data and analysis. Barry Ackerman, who heads the DFO’s Groundfish Management Unit from the federal agency’s Burrard Street headquarters, is less surprised than Pauly by the outcome. He sees it as a logical evolution and the greening of a sector that was once the pariah of the West Coast fishing industry.

“These are uncharted waters. The proactive approach by the industry and the environmental community resulted in what I think is a real precedent-setting agreement,” Ackerman says.

But there is no “happily ever after” ending to this story; the standards hammered out by the conservationists and the trawlers and enshrined in DFO policy are not an instant fix—the benefits are long-term and will be difficult to quantify. The conservation and biodiversity benefits may not be realized for 30 or 40 years, and even then the science required to accurately measure the benefits in the deep-sea coral and sponge reef environment would be cost-prohibitive. “We’re not talking hundreds of thousands; we’re talking millions of dollars,” says Ackerman, who characterizes the agreement as an act of good faith by the fishermen. “It’s not like you can go out in the forest and count trees.”

If it was an act of good faith on behalf of fishermen, it was one with economic consequences. More important than accolades from conservation groups and scientists is the fact that the people who influence the purchasing behaviour of big seafood retailers are impressed. Tobias Aguirre is executive director of Santa Cruz, California-based Fish Wise, a non-profit that helps U.S. retailers, including Safeway Inc., source sustainable seafood. He calls the agreement “state of the art,” with monitoring and protections that will go a long way toward meeting the emerging sustainable seafood policies of Safeway, Costco and other supermarket chains.

So is it peace on the water at last for the trawlers? The Suzuki Foundation’s Scott Wallace won’t go so far as to say that it’s a “sustainable” fishery, yet. He admits even the foundation’s godfather, David Suzuki, remains uneasy about putting the foundation’s stamp of approval on the trawlers. However, Wallace says the fleet has made significant steps to crawl out of the gutter of the red, “don’t touch,” and into the yellow category of the foundation’s SeaChoice rating system. That may seem as underwhelming as a kid coming home with C+, but it’s an important step nonetheless. That’s why fishery managers beyond our borders have taken notice. In the past year, Turris, Mose and Wallace have all been invited to speak in Europe about this unlikely collaboration and Mose says audiences all seem to ask the same question: “How the hell did you do it?”

Back in Port Hardy, I join Reg Richards for a coffee in the wheelhouse of the EJ Saffrick. His crew of three works with dock staff as rockfish by the hundreds are sucked out of the four holds through an eight-inch-wide plastic hose. There’s nothing particularly pretty about this business—it’s fishing on a massive scale and it’s messy, tough work. But it’s not as messy as it once was. Richards still shakes his head when he imagines his gritty fellow fishermen cozying up with environmentalists. In fact when the word “environmentalist” emerges from his mouth it still sounds like an expletive—he can’t help it. However, he’s proud of the steps his industry has taken. He recalls sitting next to guy on a plane two decades ago who asked him what he did for a living. Richards says he muttered that he was a trawler, hoping to quickly shift the conversation to lighter topics like sports or favourite beach resorts. “He said, ‘I’m glad you’re not one of these trawlers.’ He thought I said troller and I didn’t bother to correct him,” Richards says. “Today I would correct him.”