Rockfish industry in deep trouble
Nov. 15, 1999

Press Democrat Staff Writer

Pacific Coast sport and commercial fishing operators, forever battling salmon season cutbacks and regulations, have one more reason to complain after a decision by federal authorities to sharply reduce limits for ocean rockfish.

The cut, ordered by the Pacific Fishery Management Council, could reduce limits by 60 percent in a $66 million industry.

Similar restrictions are expected to be approved Dec. 3 by the state Fish and Game Commission.

The cut is so severe that Gov. Gray Davis is urging the federal government to declare a disaster because of the economic impact on the fishing industry.

"Thousands of fishermen and a like number of fish-plant workers in California will be affected by the impending regulations," Davis wrote to U.S. Commerce Secretary William Daley.

Chuck Wise, president of the Bodega Bay Fishermen's Marketing Association, said Sunday the cuts could have drastic consequences for the rockfish industry, both sport and commercial, big and small.

"It's going to be tough on everybody. If you got a guy with a million-dollar boat, he'll have million-dollar payments. And a guy with a $20,000 boat, he's still got to make a living. It'll be tough on big and little guys," he said.

Wise, whose association represents some hook-and-line commercial rockfishing operations, said some fishermen will need the help available under a disaster status.

"They did that once before for salmon fishermen. It makes you eligible for unemployment insurance and low-cost loans," he said.

Rick Powers, Bodega Bay sport charter boat skipper and vice president of the Golden Gate Fishermen's Association, said fishermen support efforts to restore the fishery but are concerned the state and federal agencies may be going too far too quickly.
He said the commission is considering cutting sportfishing bag limits from 15 to 12 or 10 and closing the year-round season in March and April."I'd hate to see them drop the limit and take the time, too," he said.

Powers, whose association represents sport charter boats from Monterey to Oregon, said he is urging a two-month closure for a season or two.

"Then analyze the fish stock and go from there," he said.

The decision by federal authorities affects catch limits off the California, Oregon and Washington coasts. It applies to about 55 species of fish living in rocky areas and on the ocean bottom, including ling cod and bocaccio. The various species are popular eating fish and are often sold as "red snapper."

The measures are being taken, the fishery council said, to halt the decline in the resource.

Studies by the National Marine Fisheries Service in Tiburon earlier this year showed that bocaccio numbers have plunged in recent years. The study found commercial and sportfishing boats caught 6,240 tons of bocaccio in 1980. Last year, the study said, the catch was only 350 tons and this year it is expected to be fewer than 100 tons.

The condition of bocaccio is the worst of any West Coast rockfish, but all rockfish populations are severely down, authors of the study said. Bocaccio is down to less than 5 percent of its historic population and cowcod is at less than 10 percent.

"The West Coast ground fish fishery is in crisis," National Marine Fisheries Service scientists concluded in a research plan. "The fishery is overcapitalized and at least several stocks have been depleted by a combination of natural and man-made factors, pushing their allowable catches down to levels that cannot economically sustain present fishery harvest levels."

Forecasts for hard times are being made all along the coastline.

"This is the worst round of cuts we've had," said Dan Hunt, 40, a commercial fisherman from Half Moon Bay. "I've heard a lot of talk of getting out of the business. Next year it could be worse," he added.

But even fishermen agree there are too many boats seeking too few fish.

"We could remove a third of the fleet and still catch what we're allowed to catch," said Joe Easley, administrator of the Oregon Trawling Commission, who estimated 220 trawl boats catch West Coast ground fish.

As a way to meet the coming cutbacks, trawlers have offered to stop fishing close to shore with "roller gear," big tires attached to their nets, that allow them to sweep through rocky areas where their nets would otherwise get snagged.