Doing well by doing good

Commercial fishermen in California and the Nature Conservancy are working together on the Central Coast Groundfish Project to help protect declining fish populations and their marine habitat by developing sustainable ways of fishing.

Five years ago, the conservancy bought out area fishing boats and licenses in a fairly extreme deal — forged with the local fishing industry — to protect millions of acres of fish habitat. The unusual collaboration was enjoined to meet stricter federal regulations and the results of a successful legal challenge. But once the conservancy had access to what was essentially its own private commercial fishing fleet, the group decided to put the boats back to work and set up a collaborative model for sustainable fishing.

Bringing information technology and better data collection to such an old-world industry is part of the plan. So is working with the fishermen it licenses to control overfishing by expanding closed areas and converting trawlers — boats that drag weighted nets across the ocean floor — to engage in more gentle and less ecologically damaging techniques like using traps, hooks and line, and seine netting.

Using  iPads supplied by the Conservancy, fishermen record any bycatch (when too many of a protected species is caught) on an automated posting system called eFish which shares the information with other boats in the fishing fleet. As a result bycatch has dropped to less than 1% and independent fishermen have joined the project too.