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Science & Environment

Large Parts Of Pacific Ocean Reopened For Trawling

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Decades of overfishing destroyed much of the fish stocks off America's West Coast. Hardest hit were species known as groundfish that trawlers dragged up in their nets. In the year 2000, large parts of the Pacific Ocean were declared disaster zones and closed to trawlers, devastating the industry.

Now nearly two decades later, fish stocks have rebounded. And come New Year's Day, thousands of square miles of ocean will reopen. It's a success story being celebrated by both fishermen and environmentalists, who worked together to bring back the fish.

Brad Pettinger is a longtime trawler captain who operates off the coast of Oregon. He worked the seas when rockfish, sole and perch were abundant.

BRAD PETTINGER: You basically had an industry that (unintelligible) bringing upwards of 200, 240 million pounds of fish across the docks. And that was dropped probably by a quarter in just a couple of years.

FADEL: After the government declared the area a disaster zone, conservationists, fishermen and fish processors worked through a council to save the fish and the fishing industry. Initially, the different groups were at loggerheads, says Pettinger, who served on the council. But they worked out a plan. Fish quotas were cut dramatically. Trawlers went from pulling in 9 million pounds of fish down to 100,000 pounds per year. It put many out of business.

PETTINGER: It was just a - it really was just a bad, bad environment. No one was making money. It was a dark time would be probably the best way to put it.

FADEL: Those fishermen who stayed in the game had to change how they fished. Their nets dragged in unwanted fish and sea life that had to be tossed overboard.

PETTINGER: And we had discarded probably anywhere from 20-40% depending on the species. And really no one wanted that.

FADEL: Bottom trawlers modified their nets to allow small fish to escape. They avoided rocky areas where fish breed, areas that their nets could permanently damage. And they stuck to quotas that are strictly monitored.

PETTINGER: We have an observer or a camera on the vessel that ensures that the - all the fish are accounted for and there's no discards happening that aren't being seen. And so really, we got the science right early on.

FADEL: Shems Jud, the regional director for the Environmental Defense Fund's ocean program, says as a result, fish stocks rebounded decades earlier than expected. He called the efforts a conservation homerun. According to Jud, it's the biggest environmental story that no one knows about. And now you do. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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