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Voices from the Waterfront

Bob Dooley on the Seattle waterfront outside the United Catcher Boats Association office. 

Pacific Prince delivering a load of whiting to an at-sea processor vessel. Credit: Bob Dooley.

Whiting processing in Newport, Oregon. 

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Meet Bob Dooley, Who Fishes Whiting and Other Fish off the West Coast

December 3, 2012

Bob Dooley of Half Moon Bay, California, started his commercial fishing career at the age of eleven off the California coast. Today, he and his brother own the 99-foot crab vessel the F/V Shellfish and two trawlers, the 149-foot F/V Pacific Prince and the 106-foot F/V Caitlin Ann.  He fishes for Bering Sea pollock and Pacific cod, West Coast whiting and dungeness crabs.  He has advocated for managing the West Coast trawl fishery with catch shares for years and has testified before Congress about the effectiveness of catch shares in Alaskan fisheries. Dooley is president of the United Catcher Boats Association in Seattle, Washington.

We interviewed him recently in Seattle about West Coast catch shares, a new management system that divides the quotas for Pacific whiting and a broad array of bottom-dwelling fish like Dover sole, sablefish and rockfishes into exclusive shares assigned to individual fishermen. 

How did you get interested in commercial fishing?

I was born and raised in Half Moon Bay, California. I grew up there. My mother had a seafood restaurant for 38 years. My uncle was a charter-boat operator, owned his own business and several boats and also was a commercial-fish buyer and, when he was younger, a commercial fisherman. My dad was a commercial fisherman. I’ve just been around boats and seafood all my life. 

When catch shares first started for the trawl fleet in January 2011, were fishermen on the West Coast uncertain about how it was going to affect their lives?

Well, there were a lot of people uncertain about how it was going to work out.  It was a very complicated system. Was this a shock down here on the West Coast? Yeah, it was to the majority of the stakeholders, but from my perspective, coming from the Alaska pollock fishery, this was what we wanted. 

On the West Coast, before catch shares, you had an Olympic system, with a start date, and you raced. And the measure of success was: Did you get a large enough share of the quota while the fishery was still open? Could you support your operation by racing? There was no concern for quality. It was just about catching fish.

Where do you see the West Coast trawl fleet in five or six years?

I think they’re going to be really close to where we are now in Alaska. The revenue’s going to come way up on the product, because you’ll have more ability now to control for quality.

The other part of this that’s getting solved—and it’s awesome—is the bycatch problem. Anybody can accidentally catch bycatch, prohibited species. So if you happened to have a mistake and you go over your bycatch quota, you’re out of the fishery for a while.

But now fishermen are beginning to understand the advantage of pooling their bycatch quotas so that overages by a few members of the pool are covered by the group. So you get together with a group of fishermen, even from various ports, and you say, “Okay, we’re not going to fish in water shallower than this depth or we’re not going to fish at night or around these particular closures.”  It’s fishermen making decisions about their own lives, not regulators.

Has safety at sea improved with catch shares?

I think there are a couple of issues here. First, there’s the weather. That’s a big concern. You’re not forced to go out when it’s really bad. You might find yourself out there in bad weather, but you don’t choose to leave the dock when it’s blowin’ a hundred.

But I think the biggest effect on safety has to do with economic viability. If you’re not making any money it’s hard to keep a good, seasoned crew. It’s hard to outfit the boat with all the safety equipment and the training and all of the things you need to maintain a safe boat. 

Look at the quality of jobs now and how it relates to the safety and financial stability of boats. You see boats that have an adequate amount of quota and are operated like a business. These boats provide good employment, they provide rotation for crews: they’re a safe platform.

 So, is it safer now under catch shares?  Yeah, I totally think it is.

The West Coast catch shares fleet now has government observers on every boat, for every trip, with fishermen paying for part of the observer costs now and eventually scheduled to pay for all of it.  What are the long-term implications of this change?

I think ultimately it’s going to be a mark of the success of this program. From my point of view, and I’ve had observers on board in the Alaska fisheries since day one, it’s a good thing. If you can afford it—if the fishery can afford it—it’s a wonderful thing.  You’ve got 100 percent accountability. You know what’s being caught. 

You need a basic amount of “eyes on fish,” scientific observers, human observers. The problem is affordability. Prior to the catch share program we have today, we had a modest level of observers funded by the government. It was part of stock assessment. We've taken that out of this fishery and will eventually replace it with a 100-percent industry-funded observer program. There needs to be some discussion about where that government support went. That should be a responsibility of the stock assessment.

There’s also a serious effort to replace, or at least augment, human observers with sophisticated camera systems, electronic monitoring.  Do you see this as a realistic development?

It’s a good idea. There’s a lot of work being done on electronic monitoring and I think that it ultimately could help.  But if they want 100 percent accountability of every fish that’s landed and they want to know what it is and how big it is, that technology is going to cost more than an observer.  But, the more accountability there is in the system through observers, the closer you can operate to the maximum sustainable yield.