Federal mismanagement blamed for rockfish decline

U.S. put commerce before conservation, a coalition charges

By Tom Knudson -- Sacramento Bee Staff Writer Published 2:15 a.m. PDT Thursday, May 22, 2003

The collapse of West Coast rockfish populations was triggered by a flawed federal management system that set excessive harvest levels, failed to properly account for fish caught and favored commerce over conservation, an environmental coalition charged Wednesday.

"The Pacific Fishery Management Council turned a blind eye to crisis and ultimately hurt the people the council was purporting to support --fishermen," said the Washington, D.C.-based Marine Fish Conservation Network in a report titled "Horrors of the Deep!"

Hans Radtke, chairman of the Pacific council, disputed the allegations, saying the Portland-based regulatory body responded as quickly as it could to the crisis and did not bend to economic interests. "We put science ahead of other considerations," he said.

Also taking issue with the report was Peter Leipzig, executive director of the Fishermen's Marketing Association, which represents commercial trawlers who harvest rockfish in California, Oregon and Washington.

"Clearly, it is real easy for people to make statements," said Leipzig, who is based in Eureka. "But there is no substantiation."

Once a mainstay of the West Coast commercial fishing industry, populations of long-lived, deep-dwelling rockfish have declined dramatically in recent years, victims of overfishing and warmer ocean conditions. In response, the council has whittled fishing limits lower and lower -- sowing unemployment and economic decay in coastal towns.

The rockfish catch on the West Coast plunged from 93.1 million pounds in 1991 to 18.5 million pounds in 2001. California's share dropped from 30.4 million pounds to 5.3 million pounds.

Released to news organizations Wednesday, the network's report is a broad-brush attack on federal implementation of the 1996 Sustainable Fisheries Act, which was supported by many environmental groups. The marine conservation network is funded by contributions from foundations, including the Pew Charitable Trusts and the David and Lucile Packard Foundation.

"Despite the (Fisheries Act's) clear conservation mandates, managers are still focused on maximizing commercial production," the report says. The heart of the problem, the report says, is the council's "refusal to put adequate limits on the groundfish gold rush and their 'head in the sand' approach of only counting the fish that were sold, not the tons and tons of fish that were discarded, dead and dying, as by-catch."

Most rockfish are harvested in ocean trawl nets that capture whatever is in their path. Typically, fish are thrown back when they are unmarketable or exceed federal fishing limits.

Radtke, though, said the council is not underestimating the catch. "When we count the total number of fish removed, we also have an estimate of discards," he said. Starting in 2001, the council also began placing federal observers on 20 percent of trawler trips.

Karen Garrison of the Natural Resources Defense Council said the council's by-catch estimates and partial coverage by observers are not good enough.

"The Pacific council talked about the need for observers for over a decade before it required them," she said. Garrison said she supports 100 percent observer coverage -- which is used in Canada's more prosperous rockfish industry.