An old-fashioned fish war is heating up off the California coast.
Claiming declining rockfish stocks, sport fishers and scuba divers want commercial fishermen out of the bountiful kelp beds that run from Mexico to the Oregon border.
Commercial fishermen say there's plenty to share provided both sides compromise. At a hearing tonight in Oakland, an underfunded Department of Fish and Game attempts to sort out the mess.
What's undisputed is that a lot of money rides on the outcome. The near-shore fishery, as it is called, has rapidly become a lucrative place to wet a line. In the past 10 years, Asian markets have gobbled up all the colorful, spiny, live fish the boats can deliver. Japanese buyers reportedly have offered a staggering $25 per fish for some species, and others fetch up to $7 per pound at the dock -- compared to 70 cents or less for dead fish.
Meanwhile charter boats have developed a profitable business hauling anglers and weekend divers to these rich grounds. Increasingly, they say, they arrive to find an area blanketed by fish traps and hooks and barren of all but the smallest of fry.
Sport fishers fear the fishery is following the same line the abalone fishery south of San Francisco traced in the 1980s: strong surge in demand and increasing harvests, throughout which Fish and Game officials took few precautionary steps, followed by a precipitous crash.
Fish and Game officials note that an expanding sea otter population and two crippling diseases devastated the abalone as well, but one fact remains: today no one -- commercial and sport fisher alike -- can legally catch wild abalone south of the Golden Gate.
"These traps and the sticks that they use, they are way too intense for the near-shore. They don't belong," said Bob Humphrey, a diver who sits on the Fish and Game advisory commission. "They are saturation bombing these reefs and taking whole reef communities out."
At the debate's center swims the rockfish, a large-mouthed, bug-eyed, firm-fleshed fish that until the late 1980s was often sold cheaply as "pacific red snapper" in local markets.
Then the market skyrocketed in the early 90s for live fish -- fish that sell for a premium and are left swimming in tanks until the customer picks out one for the frying pan.
In 1991, for instance, commercial harvest for the gopher rockfish was all of five pounds. Five years later fishermen hauled 171,601 pounds out of the ocean. By 1999 the catch had fallen -- crashed, some would say -- to 40,000 pounds. Prices rode a similar wave, from 75 cents per pound to $3.02.
Some experts say no fishery can survive such pressure, least of all the rockfish, which tends to stay in one place rather than migrate like tuna or salmon. More hooks in the water means a favorite fishing hole can quickly get fished out. Scientists know little about the rockfish, a diverse group with dozens of species. It lives long -- up to 80 years -- and some speculate older fish are the most sexually active. Sport fishers report seeing almost none of those big, older fish, and the commercial market seeks younger fish that fit nicely on a plate. Biologists say they have no idea what's left swimming in the ocean.
"If we knew that, we'd be in a lot better shape," said Rob Collins, marine near-shore fisheries coordinator for the Department of Fish and Game.
What started the whole conflict, in a way, is the fish's swim bladder: pull up a rockfish from water deeper than 120 feet, and the bladder ruptures, killing the fish. Commercial boats chasing the live market concentrated on shallower waters near the shore.
"They're harvesting a lot of species the recreationalists depend on," Collins said. "Typically when a commercial fishery develops on a stock, the population drops to some level around 60 percent of what is was before it was fished." Stocks stabilize after that, Collins added, and scientists find the population actually grows robustly, but that does nothing to solve the inherent conflict on the fishing grounds.
Fish and Game is considering a number of different proposals as it drafts the Near-Shore Fisheries Management Plan, which the state Fish and Game Commission must adopt by January and would cover the entire coast -- from Mexico to Oregon -- to a mile out from shore. Collins said staffers are considering everything from limiting equipment to establishing separate fishing areas to giving anglers an earlier crack at the season.
Today's hearing at the Elihu Harris State Building at 1515 Clay Street in Oakland is an opportunity for the public to air suggestions. The meeting starts at 7 p.m.
Commercial harvesters acknowledge that Fish and Game needs to impose new rules on the industry. Zeke Grader, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fisherman's Foundation, says the fishers will likely have to accept limits on the amount of traps and fishing gear each boat can place in the water. He also would accept limits on new entrants into the fishery.
But restrictions that the sport crowd seeks -- be it a complete ban on fishing or a switch to rod-and-reel equipment only -- are "terribly counterproductive" in the ongoing debate, he said. "I've come up with differences of opinion before, but I've never before seen this extent of ignorance."
Since commercial fishers concentrate on keeping fish alive, hooks are designed to easily release the fish with minimal damage, Grader said. That increases the survival rate for halibut, undersized fish and other "bycatch" that are accidentally hooked and later released, he added.
It also contrasts with the treble hook favored by some sport fishers, which can be tougher to remove from a similarly accidental catch, he said. "These are killers."
Plus sport advocates never mention the local diving contests and fishing derbies that, Grader said, place plenty of pressure on older stocks.
"There's fish there for not a large fishery but a small one for both sides -- and a quality fishery," he added. "But they've got to get beyond pointing fingers."