“When I was 12 years old I was unloading trucks in Chicago,” remembered the 84-year-old former Republican senator from Washington state whose father founded Slade Gorton & Co. in Boston. “It’s one of the reasons that persuaded me to do something else.”
But Gorton, who is participating in a media campaign promoting catch-share management, never fully left the industry behind. He joked that when he decided to leave New England he probably went 500 miles too far; in Seattle, the importance of fishing made it a major part of his career in public service. He remembers a two-year dispute over the Alaska pollock fishery with the late Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens being as controversial as anything else he had to deal with in his political career.
“People still, 15 years later, stop me on the streets of Seattle and thank me for what happened with that fishery,” said Gorton. He believes the same will be true if the United States continues to implement catch shares in its fisheries.
“Ten years from now people will be reacting the way they’re reacting to me in Seattle,” said Gorton.
Joining Gorton on the campaign for catch shares are Bruce Babbitt, former Secretary of the Interior for President Clinton; Buddy Guindon, a Gulf of Mexico fisherman from Galveston, Texas; and Amanda Leland, VP-oceans for Environmental Defense Fund (EDF).
The organization has been a vocal advocate for catch shares, a form of fishery management that allocates a specific portion of that fishery’s total allowable catch to individuals, corporations or other entities.
“Our goal for this tour is to talk to people about why catch shares work and make the case that this is something that is good for the fishermen,” said Leland. “We’re doing it here in Washington to make the case that this is a bipartisan issue and that the U.S. can create global leadership on this.”
Half of the fish landed in U.S. waters are managed under catch shares, Leland pointed out. Supporters cite the expected benefits of a system where fishermen can take their time harvesting their allotted catch rather than rushing out to scoop up as much of a shared quota as possible, in a derby-style fishery. That helps to stabilize the market and makes fishing safer for fishermen because they won’t lose their catch if they don’t go out on rough days.
“In the old days of attempting to save the fishery, the days on which you could fish during the course of the year were constantly constricted and we got to the point where the halibut fishery in Alaska was three days,” said Gorton. “And if there was a hurricane on those three days you had to go fishing anyways. Well the dramatic change now, when you have a fishing quota, you can go anytime. You can spread out the catch.”
Opponents of catch shares point to consolidation in fisheries, which leaves the resource in the hands of just a few winners. Controversy and lawsuits quickly followed after groundfish catch shares were implemented on the East and West coasts in 2010 and 2011. Earlier this month, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit heard oral arguments in a lawsuit challenging the legality of catch shares in the Northeast. On Sept. 10, a federal appeals court in San Francisco upheld a previous ruling that the system for groundfish quotas on the West Coast was lawfully executed.
The fight over catch shares has been especially bloody in the Northeast, for which the Commerce Department issued a formal declaration last week after important fish stocks like Gulf of Maine cod failed to meet rebuilding goals. The declaration paves the way for possible disaster funds for Northeast fishermen facing severe quota cuts.
“The decline of some of these stocks is a really difficult problem,” said Gorton. “Some of these fisheries have been fished heavily for 500 years … What catch shares will do in terms of the design is help that process, it will arrest the decline which comes from overfishing. Obviously we need to be sensitive to the hardship that’s being created and find ways to assist fishermen and the communities, but we don’t help anyone by overfishing and making it worse.”