Hope for Morro Bay with Michael Bell '95

Michael Bell is tackling a big problem: the depletion of the oceans’ fish stocks. By Tina Cormier ’01

Michael Bell of the Nature Conservancy

Photo by Lexie Bell

It’s six a.m. on the docks in Morro Bay, California. The early sun has turned the sky purple and orange and lifted the fog that had settled around iconic Morro Rock. Halyards clink against sailboat masts, while the hypnotic thrum of a diesel engine means the work day is about to begin for Central Coast’s fishermen. This is Michael Bell’s office.

Bell, director of The Nature Conservancy’s California Marine and Coastal Program, pulls up to the boatyard to drop off an iPad for one of the fishermen, his surfboard still strapped to the roof from a weekend on the beach with his wife and baby daughter. As he walks down the dock, he passes the Morro Bay Fish Company and a handful of grizzled old fishermen with white beards and deeply creased faces. They greet Bell with their customary sarcastic comments and slaps on the back.

He is not a fisherman, but everybody here knows and respects him. As the director of the Central Coast Groundfish Project, Bell and his colleagues are revolutionizing fisheries management. He is changing people’s lives, as he works to turn the tide for a fishery that threatened to fade away and take the community with it.

The culture and economy of Morro Bay are rooted in the fishery. For hundreds of years, it has been this way; fathers teaching their sons the art and science of fishing and the community taking pride in its heroes and providers, but always with an eye toward the sea and hope for a safe return. While this life has never been easy, the last 20 years of rapidly declining fish stocks and increased regulations have brought the fishery to its knees.

VIDEO: Watch Michael Bell & Morro Bay fishermen explain how sustainable fishing methods are helping to preserve California’s maritime heritage.

Fisherman Rob Seitz recalls, “Morro Bay was suffering— it was dead. Many guys were retirement age, and what they had invested their whole lives in was suddenly worth a lot less.” The city was also suffering. With no more fish hauls crossing the docks, their number one economic driver was disappearing. Fish markets, restaurants, and tourism were hurting. Financial and personal ruin seemed inevitable for more than a few families.

Seitz has been fishing for more than 20 years and has witnessed dramatic changes. He grew up in Alaska and learned to fish from his grandfather. Back then, there was very little management; anyone with a boat and some gear could fish. Now, due to overfishing and heightened regulations, he has had to tighten the belt and get creative to stay afloat.

“When you’re volume-oriented, and the volume goes away, it hurts. We are a very traditional industry,” he explains. “It’s really hard to change—especially if that’s how your father, and his father before him, did it.” He moved to California two years ago to take part in what he calls “the most important fishery-related program in the country.”

Enter Michael Bell and The Nature Conservancy (TNC). Typically viewed as a conservation organization, they were in uncharted waters when they decided to buy into the fishing business. They began dissolving the traditional tensions between fishermen and conservation groups by emphasizing their common ground: without a healthy ocean, there would be no fishery.

During Bell’s visits to fishing communities all along the Central Coast, he listened to the same story time and time again—stories like Rob Seitz’s.

“What we heard was that the fishery was truly suffering, and many were trying to find a way out,” Bell says. They had overcapitalized on a single, flawed business model: catching high volumes of fish and selling them at low prices. It was time for a change. With strict regulations and unprecedented fish scarcity, fishermen were unable to sustain their livelihoods, but were too invested to leave. TNC offered them a way out and seized the opportunity to play an active role in innovative fishery reform.

Bell recalls the unbelievable feeling of waking up one morning owning 13 federal trawl permits and six boats, making TNC the second largest quota holder in the west coast groundfish fishery. They had bought out fishermen who wanted to leave the business and leased their permits back to those who wanted to stay—with conditions. Their goal was to revive the fishery, the community, and the health and productivity of the oceans.

“We moved into an ownership position where we were a real stakeholder, rather than an outside group lobbying for change,” says Bell.

Crazy? Yes, but not surprising. TNC has a history of working directly with industries to find solutions to environmental problems. Bell recognized the value in coupling scientists with seasoned fishermen, though it was no easy task. Scientists were viewed as stuffy, unyielding academics who were too far removed from reality to be of use, while fishermen were seen as willing to pull every last fish from the ocean to make a dollar. Bell was able to convince both sides of the benefits of cooperation. In fact, one of The Nature Conservancy’s earliest experiences with partnering the historical adversaries resulted in an unprecedented collaboration—one that identified 3.8 million acres of protected ocean conservation area on the Central Coast.

Fishermen who wished to continue that partnership leased fishing permits—and thus entry into the fishery— from TNC. The permits came with certain protections and benefits, but they also came with strings attached. By pooling their quotas (transferrable fishing rights) of heavily regulated species, participants were guaranteed protection from accidentally exceeding their catch limits. Historically, even a small, accidental catch of a protected species, like yelloweye rockfish, could financially cripple an independent fisherman.

In return for that protection, fishermen agreed to diversify their fishing methods and transition away from overreliance on bottom trawling, the practice of dragging heavy fishing gear and nets, sometimes weighing several tons, along the ocean bottom. Trawling is good for catching high volumes of fish, but if not managed carefully, can result in overfishing and the destruction of sea floor habitats that support productive and profitable long-term fishery performance.

Fishermen in Moss Landing, Half Moon Bay, and Fort Bragg decided to join their Morro Bay neighbors in the project, Bell says. Now, the fishery reform covers a 15-million-acre seascape.

Seitz, who fishes mainly for black cod, has adapted by bringing in live fish, which are highly valued at the docks. He catches fewer, high quality fish, in less time, for more money—four times more money, in fact. “We’re working smarter, rather than harder,” he says, as he loads his boat with bait and large coolers of ice to preserve his catch. Others have transitioned to line and trap gear, which provide higher species selectivity and bring up fish in better condition. And they are being compensated for their responsible changes; there is a huge market for fresh, sustainably caught fish in California.

In addition to modifying their fishing methods, fishermen have begun sharing information that was fiercely guarded. Everyone in the program has an iPad on which they track where they are catching fish. “Now, when someone catches an overfished species, it’s not ‘shame on you,’ but rather a learning experience for everyone,” Bell explains.

Seitz adds, “It’s hard to cooperate, but it’s better for everyone to work together and share information. Prior to this program, fishermen had been known to lie to one another. Now we are all tied together because of overfishing. It’s in our best interest to fish clean because it helps us all keep fishing.”

This cooperation yielded tremendous results in a short time—results that are reviving the fishery and the community. Those in the program catch more target species with less by-catch (unintended species) than anyone else on the west coast. In fact, in 2011, Bell’s group used only 2.1% of their quota of overfished species, compared with 30% used by their counterparts outside of the group.

Best of all, they are doing it in an environmentally friendly way—with fewer big trawlers and less bottom contact. Bell is putting Morro Bay on the map as a destination for premium, fresh, and sustainably caught seafood.

Seitz is a progressive fisherman, and even he is in awe of what an accomplishment this collaboration really is. Throughout his career, he has worked for others because he could not afford his own equipment. This program has given him the opportunity to purchase his own boat and slowly buy some quota. With confidence in the fishery beginning to rebound, Seitz has even allowed his 24-year-old son aboard. He is eager to carry on his family’s legacy.

There is still a long way to go, but signs point to rebirth of this small fishing town. Listening to chatter on the docks yields new ideas that no one could afford to stop and think about even a few years ago. Comments like, “Let’s bring our fresh fish into local schools” and, “The Morro Bay sustainable fisheries label could be found all along the west coast—let’s send our fish to Vegas!” are not uncommon. Bell is largely credited for the success of this program and the hope it has brought to Morro Bay. “Michael is a masterful herder of cats. His character and skills make him great at dealing with all different kinds of personalities in this highly competitive fishing environment. There aren’t too many people who could do what he’s done here,” Seitz says.

Bell may be well-known on the docks in Central California, but others are also taking notice. He has received requests from fisheries managers in Massachusetts and Maine to use his system in the Northeast. In the face of drastic reductions in catch limits for various types of New England cod—up to 77% in some areas—regulators are beginning to realize that traditional top-down management may not be the most effective solution. Cooperation between scientist and fisherman is becoming the new model, and Anselmian Michael Bell is leading the charge.

Tina Cormier ’01 (honors environmental science) wrote to Portraits to “check in and provide a little update.” She wound up with a writing assignment. As a research associate at Woods Hole Research Center in Falmouth, Mass., with a new sideline in writing, she seemed like the perfect person to profile fellow Anselmian Michael Bell. She and Mike not only talked about science; they shared memories of classes and professors on the Hilltop.

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    Sad and shocking event in world’s history. Living today and looking back at this event I’m happy that people have recovered.

  • Mark Hamerdinger

    I'm a small boat fisherman and this program didn't trickle down to me and Rob Sietz is out of business her also. This program has been a complete failure for the small family oriented fisherman but great for the large corporate corporatist.