Glen Martin San Francisco Chronicle Staff Writer June 3, 2002
A new government report on plummeting rockfish populations is expected to result in a ban on most forms of bottom fishing on the West Coast's continental shelf, devastating major segments of the commercial and sport fishing industries.
The analysis by the Groundfish Management Team, a group of federal and state biologists that advises the Pacific Fisheries Management Council, found that key rockfish species -- known generically as rock cod or red snapper in the marketplace -- have declined in recent years to catastrophically low levels.
Rebuilding rockfish populations will take years or even decades of rigorous protection, the biologists say.
In conjunction with the National Marine Fisheries Service, the council sets fishing policies in U.S. waters, which extend 200 miles offshore. Authorities say the report will force drastic fishing closures. New federal rules based on the report are expected by next year.
The report is also expected to strongly influence the decisions of the California Fish and Game Commission. The agency is currently considering
new catch quotas and regulations for state waters, which extend to the 3-mile limit.
There are about 60 species of West Coast rockfish, a complex of bottom-dwelling fishes highly valued for both food and sport.
Rockfish have always been sought by commercial fishermen and recreational anglers, but they have come under heavy pressure during the
past 10 years as a result of the decline of West Coast salmon fisheries.
ROCKFISH POPULATION DWINDLING
In the late 1980s and early '90s, California's rockfish landings were valued from $10 million to $15 million annually. Landings have fallen during the past four years because of increasingly stringent regulations.
Authorities had hoped the reduced landings would allow rockfish to rebound. Now, it appears the only reasonable option is a long-term fishing closure.
"The study demonstrated that the problem was much worse than was thought," said Karen Garrison, a co-director of the ocean program for the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental litigation and lobbying group.
"This means the end of rockfishing as we know it," said Garrison. "It turns out that rockfish are extremely vulnerable to fishing pressure. They are slow growing and extremely long-lived -- some of them live more
than 100 years. They reproduce sporadically."
Tom Barnes, a senior biologist with the California Department of Fish and Game and a member of the Groundfish Management Team, said the analysis concluded current rockfish populations aren't as strong as previously thought.
To date, 16 species of rockfish have been fully assessed by government biologists, and nine have been found to be overfished.
The study does not specifically recommend banning bottom fishing on the continental shelf, but the limits it sets for acceptable catches of several species are so low it would amount to the same thing.
That is because it is difficult to go after one species of rockfish over
another -- scores of species may inhabit the same area.
"For the near future, it looks like there should be no directed fishing for continental shelf rockfish at all," said biologist Barnes.
"The National Marine Fisheries Service has a policy (for slow reproducing fish) that no fishing should be allowed until recovery is achieved, plus one generation," Barnes said. "For bocaccio, as an example, that could take decades."
Garrison said the collapse is owing to poor fisheries management, adding
that "decisions were based on short-term economics, not the sustainable management of the fisheries."
ANGLERS BLAME TRAWLERS
Tom Raftican, the president of United Anglers of Southern California, a sport-fishing lobbying organization, blamed excessive trawling for the decline.
Trawlers are commercial fishing boats that drag large nets across the seabed. They have been blamed for taking huge quantities of "bycatch" --
fish that are not desired but are swept into the nets anyway -- and destroying reef habitats.
"It's time to end trawling on the continental shelf, no ifs ands or buts
about it," said Raftican. "It's a highly destructive, indiscriminate way
of fishing. The managers have known this for decades."
Jennifer Gilden, a communications staffer with the Pacific Fisheries Management Council, said council members have worked to minimize the destructiveness of the trawler fleet.
"We've already instituted gear restrictions on the boats," she said. "For example, we've required short footropes on trawlers. When the gear goes over the rocky habitat where rockfish live, it breaks off. That has
been quite effective."
Still, such restrictions apparently have not succeeded in stemming the decline.
Raftican said sport fishermen are willing to accept closures, "provided they're based on good science. . . . That data need to be strong before we start shutting down sport fisheries."
Zeke Grader, the executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, said commercial fishermen are also willing to bite the bullet to restore rockfish populations.
"We hope it's good science," said Grader. "If it is, you go with it whether you like it or not. We'll have to scrutinize (the report), but if it's valid, it could mean severe restrictions."
Garrison said she plans to petition Congress for financial assistance to
commercial fishermen who could be affected by the expected bans on bottom fishing.
"We need to help fishermen and their communities make the transition to more sustainable practices and a smaller fleet," she said.
Grader said the federal government should buy back fishing boats and permits to reduce the commercial rockfish fleet.
"About $250 million should do it," said Grader. "Congress just passed a $90 billion agriculture bill to prolong subsidies and price supports to farmers. I hope they get around to devoting a few million to help our fishermen and save one of our greatest natural resources."
E-mail Glen Martin at email@example.com