Giuseppe Pennisi used to be skeptical of environmental organizations. But now the old-school Monterey Bay trawl fisherman is on his way to becoming a conservationist.
Trawling is notorious for disrupting crucial habitat as the gear drags across the sea floor. Pennisi has partnered with the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) to design special trawl equipment that reduces environmental damage.
According to EDF fisheries consultant Huff McGonigal, it all started with catch share. The West Coast Groundfish Trawl Catch Share Program was implemented in 2008 and designed to address one of the problems with the trip-limit management system, which set a maximum catch for each species. Any catch over the limit was thrown overboard as dead bycatch, and fishermen faced severe fines.
“It had problems on so many levels,” Pennisi says. “I can’t tell you how stressful it became.”
The new catch-share program aligned incentives. Now fishermen are constantly accompanied by trained observers who ensure they are not over their limits. When fishermen catch too much of a particular fish, they must compensate by trading with another fisherman before resuming work.
The new management system still has one big problem: making the environmentally sustainable fishing practice profitable. That’s where Pennisi’s light-trawl gear comes in.
McGonigal and EDF consultant David Crabbe have worked with Pennisi to design light-trawl gear that doesn’t drag. Instead, it floats just above the sea floor. This allows Pennisi to fish a wider area, travel faster, reduce fuel costs by a quarter and preserve bottom-dwelling fauna.
“The idea with the gear is to raise it up enough so the points of [bottom] contact are 90-percent reduced,” McGonigal explains, “but you still catch fish.”
McGonigal, Crabbe and Pennisi expect to test the light-trawl gear in the coming year. But ultimately, Crabbe says, “We hope all the boats will have gear like this.”
Threats to fishing profitability still remain. Some operations don’t have space or money for the $450-per-day observer, and when demand is high, there aren’t enough observers to cover all the boats. Fishermen still sell their catch for nearly the same price they did 30 years ago.
But Pennisi hopes his gear will allow fishermen to work in areas traditionally closed to fishing. “We’re going to only fish half as much, we’ll catch all we need, and we’ll barely be touching the bottom,” he says. “What we’re doing right now is the beginning of something huge.”