A Tale of Two Oceans

23/05/2014 12:16 BST | Updated 22/07/2014 10:59 BST

If you don't look too far back - to the fishing-out of the western stock of bluefin tuna in the 1960s, for instance, or the collapse of the cod fishery off Cape Cod in the 1990s - it is fair to say that the United States has generally proven a lot better at managing its fisheries than Europe has, thanks to more effective laws. Now that Europe has begun to reform its own disastrous laws on the management of fisheries, advances made in the USA are beginning to have more relevance in European capitals. On a recent trip to the States, I therefore took the opportunity to go back to Morro Bay, equidistant from Los Angeles and San Francisco on the central coast of California, to look at a project that inspired me when I first visited five years ago. What I found were innovations helping to rebuild fisheries that offer particular relevance to European waters.

I first heard about The Nature Conservancy's (TNC's) Central Coast Groundfish Project from that doyen of fisheries scientists, Daniel Pauly, shortly before the premiere of the 2009 documentary we both featured in, based on my book, The End of the Line. Pauly told me TNC had bought up the fishing licences in Central California and sold them back to the fishermen on condition they used hooks. I thought he was joking. A magazine sent me there to see it first-hand and I found that all was exactly as Pauly had described, with fishermen using long lines where previously they had trawled. Some trawling was still allowed on sandy bits of the seabed - mostly, however, the seabed was rocky reef, canyons and seamounts. The objective of this new approach was to conserve the rockfish, 90-odd species of which live off the West Coast, from California to Washington.

The story began in 2005, when the environmental group Oceana sued the US Secretary of State for Commerce for his failure to conserve the West Coast's fish. The ocean conservation group pointed out that catches had declined to a quarter of what they had been in the 1980s and argued that too few measures were currently in place to stop the rockfish being wiped out. Most vulnerable of the many species were the yelloweye rockfish - which reproduces slowly and has been found to grow to 118 years old - the cowcod, the canary rockfish, darkblotched rockfish, boccacio and Pacific ocean perch. Great names. As a result of Oceana's case, the Secretary of State declared a thin strip covering all the water from 30 to 150 fathoms along the coast, from California in the south to Washington in the north, as off-limits to fishermen. But conservationists saw that fishermen were struggling and this gave rise to further opportunities. So TNC bought permits to fish on five million acres of seabed off the most spectacular part of California's coast, around Big Sur. The funding for buying out 3.8 million acres of seabed came from Silicon Valley philanthropists, always open to new ideas.

Since then, the fish have come back. All but the delicious black cod, or sablefish, which was plentiful when I was there in 2009. This staple of west coast fusion cuisine is at its best served seared in miso sauce. The reason black cod is harder to come by now is due to a mistake in counting fish. Ironically, government scientists over-estimated the stock, quotas were set too high and fishermen caught too much, quite legally. That can happen. It is being dealt with. For the rockfish and the fishermen, though, the past five years have largely been good news, thanks in no small part to the Central California Groundfish Project. During my recent visit, I was delighted to meet Michael Bell, director of TNC's California Coastal and Marine Program, still serving in post and living in Morro Bay. Rick Algert, formerly the harbourmaster, is now director of the waterfront city's community quota fund - more on this later. I was also privileged to meet Rob Seitz, a trawlerman poet, who moved to Morro Bay from Oregon.

There have been major developments on the West Coast since 2009. Most significantly, the entire fishery moved to a 'catch shares' system in 2011. Catch shares are known by various other names around the world, including Individual Fishing Quotas, or Individual Transferrable Quotas. Effectively they give fishermen an owned right to fish. The allowable catch is decided by scientists (who are not infallible, as seen with black cod) and divided into shares, or quota, portions of which are then allocated to individual fishermen. Under this system, fishermen have flexibility to fish when they like and the quota is transferable, so it can be bought and sold between them as required. Fisheries economists claim catch share schemes end "the race to fish," ie to use up pooled quota before competitors do - a practice that can lead to the attrition of stocks, cheating, and the sale of fish at the lowest price. What they do not say - and what has been observed in fisheries in Iceland and New Zealand - is that catch shares can also lead to the ownership of quota winding up in fewer hands. I hear this has happened on the West Coast since the catch share system was introduced in 2011. Retired fishermen are leasing quota for vast sums from laptops in Arizona and New Mexico. Morro Bay, however, has a solution: TNC is vesting its quota in a community non-profit company, run by Rick Algert. Thus Morro Bay fishermen will always have quota to fish.

Another problem presented itself: each fisherman has vanishingly small amounts of quota for the most overfished species. So catching more than a few pounds of yelloweye rockfish or cowcod, for example, could mean the need to buy quota and be hung out to dry by the guys in Arizona or stop fishing for the rest of the year. So the fishermen and TNC got together and deposited their overfished species quota into accounts managed by a risk pool. Effectively, if you catch a lot of overfished species, the deal is that you report it immediately - new technology called eCatch, based on iPads, is going to mean this can happen in real time. Other fishermen can then avoid the very specific areas where depleted fish shoal. The system means fishermen get to fish for longer for those species they are allowed to catch. It also means that fishermen co-operate rather than compete. According to Rob Seitz, the trawlerman poet, it is like buying an insurance policy.

Now, this is an idea hugely relevant to the south coast of England, where there there are 'pressure stocks' such as Dover sole. The proposed EU discards ban, whereby fishermen will no longer be able to throw over-quota fish over the side, will effectively mean that small boat fishermen have to stop fishing after a few days each month if they catch too many sole. Imagine if they instead collaborated and ran a risk pool. Blue Marine Foundation intends to send fishermen from Lyme Bay, England, where we are already installing leading-edge, 'fully documented fisheries' technology, to Morro Bay to learn what they can about the way risk pools work. It could happen here. Watch this space.