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In an effort to help reduce stress on already ailing fish populations and limit ocean habitat destruction, the nonprofit Nature Conservancy has branched out from its standard modus operandi of purchasing development rights from farmers to buying out fishing permits from a handful of California bottom trawlers. So far the group has bought six federal trawling permits and four vessels from fishermen in Morro Bay, located roughly halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles.
According to Chuck Cook, the organization’s California coastal and marine program director, the Nature Conservancy shelled out hundreds of thousands of dollars to each participating fisherman in an effort to protect sensitive marine ecosystems off of California’s Central Coast. Cook describes the move as an alternative to punishing fishermen for trying to make a living by providing “economic incentives for treating the habitats and fisheries well.”
For years environmentalists have decried bottom trawling—whereby fishermen set large, weighted nets across the ocean floor to collect groundfish—as especially destructive to marine ecosystems. A 2002 National Academy of Sciences study concluded that the nets can crush and bury large swaths of coral and reefs vital to undersea life, while collecting and killing thousands of pounds of unwanted fish along with targeted commercial seafood species. While federal fishery officials have already banned the practice of bottom trawling from almost four million acres of Central California coastline, declines in area groundfish populations continue to mount, spurring the unusual action by the Nature Conservancy.