by Jim Hight

Early last month fishermen and fish processors braced for an economic tidal wave from Portland, where the Pacific Fishery Management Council was meeting to consider record cutbacks for the 1998 groundfish harvest.

The actual reductions, while substantial, turned out to be milder than the boat-swamping cutbacks proposed by federal fish scientists.

The most drastic cutback was in sablefish, or blackcod, a species valued highly for export to Asian markets. In 1998, commercial fishermen will be able to catch only 66 percent of the amount they were allowed to catch this year. The Dover sole quota was cut to 80 percent of this year's catch, and widow rockfish (rock cod) was cut to 65 percent. Thornyhead (another export species) was not reduced greatly.

The harvest of lingcod, a staple in North Coast markets, was cut to a third of this year's quota, and a greater share was assigned to recreational fishers. "It's a double hit on commercial fishermen," said Pete Leipzig of the Fisherman's Marketing Association in Eureka.

These harvest guidelines will be approved or modified by National Marine Fisheries Service before the end of the year. Some observers speculate that because of the controversy over fish populations -- with NMFS scientists concerned that an overfishing crisis may exist -- the agency may break its custom of approving PFMC guidelines and institute even harsher reductions.

How much income fishermen and fish processors will lose is undetermined, but the impact will be significant. Groundfish species are fished by about 25 Eureka-based trawlers and 10 hook-and-line boats. The species also make up a large chunk of business for Eureka seafood processors.

"Groundfish are well over 50 percent of our market," said Jerry Thomas, general manager of Eureka Fisheries. "We cut the head off, take the guts out and freeze it ... for export. Some of the local product is frozen but most of it is just packaged with wet ice and shipped out to markets fresh."

Eureka-based fishermen joined their counterparts from other West Coast ports last month at the PFMC meeting to challenge the gloomy stock assessments made by federal fisheries scientists. They said researchers used inaccurate data and made their computer-model assessments without an adequate understanding of fishing methods and gear.

"Some of these guys are data nerds," said Leipzig. "Give them a set of numbers and they use them without knowing what the numbers represent."

The sablefish stock assessments were particularly irksome to fishermen who say their fishing records show a healthy fishery. "If we're overfishing we need to stop, but we're not necessarily overfishing," said Mike Matson, a Trinidad fisherman.

"Everyone's seeing a lot of little fish and we're catching a lot of big fish. One of the surest signs that a population is crashing is that you're catching smaller and smaller fish."

But while acknowledging some problems with their data, NMFS scientists stand by their recommendations. "Sablefish and thornyheads live to be over 100 years old (with) very low natural mortality," said fisheries biologist Steve Ralston. "There may be a large biomass out there because it's had centuries to accumulate (but) most of the fish being removed through harvest are not being replaced. It's more like mining a resource.

"These fish grow slowly, and if you exert high mortality rates, it's going to take a very long time to see changes in the size structure of the fish you're getting."

Ralston acknowledged that scientists had made mistakes, particularly in using trawling gear improperly. A 1994 NMFS groundfish study was invalidated by an international panel of fisheries biologists.

Both sides are united in the desire for better data. NMFS has recently contracted with trawlers to collect data and agreed to a cooperative groundfish sampling project.

"The 1997 data collection is being done by fishermen," said Matson, who earlier this year helped found the Pacific Marine Conservation Council to study and protect groundfish. "If it still shows reductions in stocks, we're going to be stuck with it. If we're overfishing like they say we are, we're in deep trouble."

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