But federal statistics show the first signs of a comeback among these so-called groundfish fishermen -- those who ply deep waters for dozens of different species that fall under the "groundfish" label, such as sablefish, rockfish and thornyheads.
Conservation efforts and a 2-year-old contentious quota system called "catch shares" appear to be helping, and fishermen who were losing money in the once-lucrative fishery are in the black again, according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration data.
Some fishermen initially skeptical of the stricter government oversight say they're now seeing the long-term benefits of this approach -- and hard-hit fishing towns are seeing signs of recovery.
"When the disaster declaration came on line, for several years after that, this fishery was in a very bad situation," Frank Lockhart of the National Marine Fisheries Service said. "A lot of people were losing money, and on average, the fleet as a whole was losing money.
"What it looks like now, in 2011, the first year of catch shares, they were able to turn that around, and more people are making more money."
Overall, regulators reported the West Coast groundfish fishery yielded $54 million in 2011; the average for the previous five years was $38 million. West Coast fishermen typically catch 10 percent to 21 percent of all U.S.-landed groundfish, a haul comprised of high-value sablefish and Pacific cod.
Still, there are worries in some corners that the program in the long run will benefit big operations over small, family-run fishing businesses.
Catch-shares set an overall cap on the number of fish that can be caught in an area without devastating the fishery. That number is then divided into individual quotas for each fisherman or company. The rules are enforced by an observer on each boat who keeps close tabs on what is being caught.
The system is new to the West Coast but is in use in more than 200 fisheries in 30 countries.
Before catch shares, commercial groundfishing was more of a free-for-all: Officials set dates for when fish could be caught, then let the fleet catch as much as possible, as fast as possible. Monitoring was far less obtrusive, but the result often was more dead fish caught unintentionally being thrown overboard so fishermen didn't get fined at the dock.
Under the new program, fishermen can catch their quota anytime during the year, giving them more control over costs and labor and less incentive to cheat.
In 2000, after two decades of sharp growth in West Coast groundfishing, several species of rockfish plummeted and the federal government declared the fishery a disaster. The cause is generally believed to be a mixture of overfishing, natural conditions and management mistakes.
Standing near his boat, the 55-foot Mariah Lee at Pillar Point Harbor near Half Moon Bay, captain Geoff Bettencourt said he and many other fishermen originally were skeptical about more government oversight.
But the program so far has given him and other fishers a better dialogue with government regulators, and more optimism that the resources they rely on to make a living will be around for the next generation.
"The previous type of fishing wasn't a sustainable way to fish," said Bettencourt, a black cod fisherman. "If we kept going that way, we weren't going to exist years from now."
Another big change under catch shares is that quotas also are set for the amount of fish caught unintentionally -- a major problem under the old system. Fishermen's nets would bring in fish they weren't supposed to catch, so they often would throw the dead fish over to avoid receiving government penalties at the docks.
"Now, every single pound of fish -- no matter what it is -- is accounted for," Bettencourt said. "There's no hiding anything."
Under catch shares, government figures show unintentional catches of some species have been reduced by 80 percent or more in both 2011 and 2012.
"We were seeing discard rate (overall) of around 15 percent in some parts of the fishery where now we see figures like discard rate of around 1 or 2 percent," NOAA spokesman Brian Gorman said.
Despite the positive signs, some fishermen worry that catch shares will end up drowning small-time fishermen with unsustainable costs. They argue the system could consolidate the industry as big companies buy quotas from the smaller ones, which could devastate California's smaller fishing towns, which rely on a diversity of fishing interests.
Over the first two years of catch shares, the industry has seen a 10 to 20 percent consolidation, or a shrinking of the fleet, said Lockhart, NMFS assistant regional administrator for sustainable fisheries. So far, the consolidation hasn't been severe: about 140 groundfish boats were permitted to fish in 2010, compared to about 110 now -- though some forecasters said catch shares could reduce the number to 40. Economically, this makes the fleet more efficient by doing away with the problem of too many fishermen chasing too few fish, regulators said.
"There were no 'lost ports,' so to speak, so all ports in 2010 were still delivering fish in 2011 and 2012," he said. "To me, that's a good sign."
Still, with the program requiring expensive human observers on each boat, some worry smaller fishermen won't be able to survive long-term. Right now, the government pays most of the cost, but that is expected to change.
"For the smaller boats, all of a sudden the cost of that observer will be untenable economically," said Zeke Grader, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations.
Electronic monitors on boats could replace human observers, but that technology is years away.
"By the time they get electronic monitors set up, they will have forced the small boats out and created a giant consolidation," Grader said.
But there are more optimistic signs that enterprising small fishermen can make it work. After the disaster declaration of 2000, banks no longer were interested in giving money to fishermen.
"I knew the banks were less likely to make me a loan," said groundfish fisherman Steve Fitz of Half Moon Bay.
Instead, Fitz stayed afloat with help from a new loan program by the Environmental Defense Fund for anglers who use eco-friendly practices.
The environmental group hopes its financial program will bolster catch shares -- which the group has advocated -- and help the fleet upgrade to less damaging fishing techniques. So far, the program has issued 14 loans for nearly $1.7 million.
"It's not just about using different fishing gear," said Phoebe Higgins, director of the program, called the California Fishing Fund. "It's about helping fishermen succeed in a new management program that leads to long-term sustainability and real profitability."
MORE HBJ HEADLINES
Our new comment system is not supported in IE 7. Please upgrade your browser here.