December 14, 2000
Contact: Rob Collins, Marine Region (831) 649-2893
Don Schultze, Marine Region (916) 722-6868

Fish and Game Commission Adopts Regulations
to Protect Marine Fish Stocks

SACRAMENTO - The California Fish and Game Commission adopted a suite of measures earlier this month to protect certain species of deep water rockfish and the nearshore finfish fisheries. This action was taken to promote the sustainability of nearshore finfish during 2001 while the Department of Fish an Game (DFG) develops a fishery management plan for the nearshore fishery and to comply with federal rebuilding plans for several deep water rockfish.

        Managing the fisheries for sustainability presents a number of challenges. The lack of key information prevents assessment of the status and trends in fish populations. As a result, it is not possible to determine that current fishing is at sustainable levels. Historically, fisheries that have developed in the absence of such information generally have grown to unsustainable levels. Examples of this pattern of overdevelopment are common in the United States and abroad.

        A major change is the closure of two large ocean areas off southern California. The action will reduce fishery impacts on several important marine fish stocks that have been declared overfished or that are in need of additional protection based on recent state and federal fishery studies.

         The new regulations, which will effect fishing in state waters up to three miles offshore, will be filed with the Secretary of State with a request to be effective Jan. 1, 2001. The National Marine Fisheries Service is filing complimentary regulations for federal waters, to be effective on the same date.

        The two closure areas are prime habitat for cowcod rockfish and other bottom-dwelling groundfish species, and that traditionally produced large catches of popular rockfish such as cowcod and bocaccio. The smaller affected area, known as the "43-fathom spot," begins about 40 miles offshore of San Diego and extends northward and offshore to cover 100 square miles. The larger area, encompassing about 4,200 square miles of ocean, begins about 20 miles off the Palos Verdes Peninsula and extends due south about 90 miles towards the Mexico-California boundary and seaward another 40 to 60 miles.

         The two areas have been set aside specifically for the protection of cowcod, a species that historically thrived in the area, but now totals only 7 percent of its pre-fished population level. Fishing for lingcod and most rockfish species will be prohibited in the closure areas by both sport anglers and commercial fishermen, as will commercial bottom trawlingfor shrimp and prawn. Throughout the state, retention of cowcod will be prohibited in all fisheries. Regulations concerning cowcod can be expected to continue for an extended period of time. The cowcod rebuilding period, according to a recent state/federal biological survey, is expected to take up to 100 years.

        The cowcod closure was deliberated during recent months and in various venues sponsored by the Commission and the federal Pacific Fishery Management Council, according to LB Boydstun, Intergovernmental Affairs representative for the DFG. "The need for the closures was affirmed during the meetings as well as by recent studies and narratives recounting the declining trend in rockfish catches in general and cowcod in particular, most notably in the southern California fishing grounds," Boydstun said.

        DFG's expanding fleet of patrol vessels will handle the challenge of patrolling the new closure areas, according to Patrol Chief Frank Spear of the DFG's Marine Region. The Department will work closely with the NMFS, the federal agency that sets rockfish and lingcod regulations in waters from three to 200 miles offshore, and the U.S. Coast Guard in monitoring fishing activities in the two closed areas to ensure compliance by anglers and commercial fishers.

        The cowcod closure is also expected to benefit bocaccio and other rockfish species. A 1999 federal study found bocaccio rockfish off California to be at only about 5 percent of their pre-fished population level. Although no additional season restrictions were recommended by DFG to protect bocaccio rockfish for the coming year, the Commission--the California's fishery regulatory authority--will consider closing November and December south of Point Conception if it appears the bocaccio harvest guideline of 100 metric tons (220,000 pounds) would be exceeded for the year. Commissioners also agreed to reduce the bocaccio bag limit from three to two fish, a move that is not expected to significantly impact fishing for other rockfish species in the area.

        Fishing will be allowed for various nearshore fish species, including ocean whitefish, during the January and February rockfish and lingcod closure south of Point Conception and in the cowcod closure areas. However, fishing for these species must be conducted in waters less than 20 fathoms (120 feet) in order to minimize the incidental catch (also known as bycatch) of overfished rockfish species, which generally occur at deeper depths. These are the species the regulations are intended to protect.

        Recreational anglers off the central portion of the state between Cape Mendocino in Humboldt County and Point Conception will have a shorter season for deeper water rockfish and lingcod by two months compared to this year. The restrictions in this area are aimed at reducing fishery impacts on canary rockfish, another overfished groundfish species. According to a recent federal fishery survey, the abundance of this popular West Coast rockfish species is placed at less than 10 percent of its unfished level. The current March and April rockfish and lingcod closure off central California will be extended through June beginning in 2001, except that fishing will be allowed for nearshore rockfish species during May and June in waters less than 20 fathoms in depth. The Commission also agreed at their recent meeting to reduce the canary rockfish daily bag limit statewide from three to one fish, and to reduce the number of hooks that anglers may use when fishing for rockfish and lingcod from three to two, a measure aimed at reducing the chances of an angler catching more than a limit of rockfish on the same cast.

        The Commission also approved an increased minimum size limit for cabezon in the recreational fishery from 14 to 15 inches, to protect spawning and nesting fish. For sheephead in the recreational fishery, the Commission approved a reduced bag limit of from ten to five fish and the establishment of a 12-inch minimum size limit for the species. The sheephead changes were prompted by a Commission decision to reduce recreational fishery impacts by 22 percent compared to 1999 reported landings. The sheephead size limit increase is aimed at protecting spawning fish.

        No changes were adopted for the recreational rockfish and lingcod season north of Cape Mendocino, which is open year round and is managed in concert with Oregon fishery managers. Recreational lingcod fishing north of Point Conception will resume on Jan. 1, 2001 when the West Coast catch limit for the species nearly doubles compared to this year. However, anglers in the southern part of the state will have to wait until March 1, 2001 to target lingcod and deeper water rockfish. During the open season, the lingcod sport regulations will allow for a two-fish daily bag limit for fish 26 inches or longer in total length. Anglers throughout the state have been reporting excellent catches of small, undersized fish, which should be large enough to keep during coming months.

        Since the late 1980's the commercial fishery for nearshore fish stocks--rockfish, cabezon, sheephead and greenlings in particular--has increased to meet the demand for an expanding live fish market. In this fishery, the harvesters commonly receive over $5 per pound dockside for their live fish landings. In response to concerns about the expanded live fish fishery, the Commission adopted interim regulations at its recent meeting to reduce the harvest in the nearshore commercial fishery as part of an overall catch limit that is shared with the recreational fishery. For all three species, the Commission used the average of actual catches in the recreational and commercial fisheries since the early 1980's to allocate the allowable harvest of each species between the two fisheries, a decision mandated under the Marine Life Management Act.

        It should be noted that one of the most difficult and controversial aspects of many fisheries management decisions has to do with allocation of allowable catches between commercial and recreational fishermen, particularly when total allowable catches are being reduced. Allocation in the nearshore fishery is all the more difficult because the fishery changed in the late 1980's from being largely recreational to being a mixed fishery with a substantial commercial component. Unlike many other California fisheries, commercial and recreational fishermen directly and indirectly impact each other's use of the nearshore, generating conflicts.

        The Commission's recent action results in a minor impact to the recreational fishery for sheephead (cited above) but a significant impact on the commercial fishery for all three species. For sheephead the objective is to reduce commercial fishery impacts, compared to 1999 levels, by 30 percent. For cabezon and greenlings the reduced harvest objectives were set at 79 percent and 84 percent, respectively. To achieve these targets, commercial fishing will be prohibited for all three species south of Point Conception during January and February and north of Point Conception in March and April.

        Also, commercial fishing for cabezon and greenlings will be prohibited statewide on Thursday through Sunday of each week. The commercial minimum size limit for sheephead will be increased from 12 to 13 inches and for cabezon from 14 to 15 inches.