At its December meeting, the California Fish and Game Commission adopted a suite of interim measures to promote the sustainability of nearshore finfish fisheries under State jurisdiction during 2001, while the Department of Fish and Game develops a fishery management plan for these fisheries.
The adoption of these measures culminates a long process that involved numerous meetings with constituents, extensive public comments, the review of available scientific and other information, and the development, presentation, review, and revision of a wide range of management options. The Department and the Commission sponsored several meetings with constituents in the months of July, August, October, and November in several locations around the State in order to discuss approaches to stabilizing the nearshore finfish fishery. Commercial and recreational fishermen, divers, scientists, and conservationists also have discussed these measures through an Internet listserve moderated by the Commission's marine consultant.
The nearshore finfish fisheries of the state present unique challenges to meeting the goals and standards of the Marine Life Management Act. Some of these challenges are outlined below.
Key Biological Challenges in the Nearshore and the Commission's Response
Managing the nearshore finfish fisheries for sustainability faces a number challenges. For instance, the lack of key information prevents assessment of the status and trends in nearshore finfish 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. The result has been economic and ecological dislocation.
Besides this general pattern of unsustainable development, the following factors in the nearshore finfish fishery directly and indirectly suggest unsustainable levels of exploitation.
1) Many of the species in the fishery have life-history characteristics that make them vulnerable to overfishing. These characteristics include long lives, late maturation, and low reproductive capacity. These characteristics reflect the low probability of successful reproduction in any given year. As the American Fisheries Society has noted in its policy on Pacific rockfish, successful reproduction and survival of rockfish is infrequent and irregular, with long periods of poor recruitment. These characteristics make restoration of depleted populations a difficult and long-term undertaking.
2) Many species are sedentary and aggregate in limited reef and kelp areas, making them vulnerable to targeted fishing. As fishing has expanded into more remote and inaccessible nearshore areas, populations in de facto refugia have become vulnerable.
3) With increasing recreational and commercial fishing effort, the older, larger, more productive fish have been removed from most populations. Maintaining or rebuilding individual populations now depends upon younger, smaller fish that are less productive.
4) Many of these species die when brought to the surface from depths below 60 feet. Therefore, they cannot be caught and easily returned live, if they are a prohibited species or size. The volume of dead discards is unknown.
5) Different species of nearshore fishes often occur in mixed groups, making it nearly impossible to target individual species. This lack of selectivity in fishing places "weaker" species at greater risk of overfishing. Weaker species may possess such characteristics as later maturity or lower fecundity.
6) Available statistics show that there has been a dramatic increase in landings of some nearshore fish in recent years, primarily to supply the live-fish market. Demand in this market remains high and is likely to remain so in the future. The market's preference for smaller fish puts disproportionate pressure on fish that have yet to reach maturity and reproduce.
7)Landings of some popular species have decreased even as premium prices have continued to rise. This trend usually signals unsustainable levels of fishing. Examples from the period 1991-1999 include the following:- Commercial landings of black-and-yellow rockfish grew from 41 pounds in 1991 to a peak of 67,017 pounds in 1995, then fell to 33,686 pounds in 1999. Prices during the same period rose from 85¢ per pound to $3.23 per pound.
8) Fishing effort often shifts from one species to another as landings decline. Several recent examples of newly targeted species are the following:
The Commission's Actions:
The Federal Pacific Fishery Management Council is responsible for the management of many nearshore species of groundfish. The Council has given recreational fishermen in California, Oregon, and Washington preferential access to nearshore groundfish, while giving commercial fishermen preferential access to offshore groundfish.
The management of nearshore species that are not actively managed by the Pacific Council fall fully under the jurisdiction of the State. The Marine Life Management Act includes specific authority for the Commission to develop a fishery management plan for the nearshore finfish fishery and to adopt interim regulations should that be necessary. As Federal restrictions have tightened, the pressure on these other nearshore species has grown. After months of public discussion and review, the Department and the Commission decided to provide a margin of protection for four nearshore finfish species: cabezon, kelp and rock greenling, and sheephead.
Upon the recommendation of the Department, the Commission adopted a management approach that takes account of the challenges mentioned above by incorporating a safety buffer in setting optimum yield (OY). Effectively, OY is the allowable level of catch. Since so little is known about these fish and since trends suggest their populations are declining, the Department and Commission utilized an approach developed by the National Marine Fisheries Service and adopted by the Pacific Fishery Management Council. In doing so, the Department and Commission used average catches during 1994-1999 for approximating maximum yields from the fisheries. OYs for cabezon, greenlings, and sheephead then were set at 50% of these averages, in order to reduce the risk of overfishing created by the lack of knowledge about these populations. This "precautionary" approach enjoys widespread support in the scientific community and has been adopted by other states, by the National Marine Fisheries Service, and by several international fisheries organizations.
Allocation Challenges and the Commission's Response
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 allowable catches are being reduced. Unlike many other California fisheries, commercial and recreational fishermen directly and indirectly affect each other's use of the nearshore, often generating conflicts over space and access to nearshore fish.
In the 1990s, when the state set no OYs nor made any explicit allocations, the fishery changed from being largely recreational to being a mixed fishery with a substantial commercial component. In the period 1993-1999, commercial catches of cabezon grew eight-fold, while recreational catches declined by nearly half. In the early 1990s, commercial catches of sheephead in southern California grew rapidly, and dominated the fishery until a decline in the late 1990s. After peaking then declining in the early 1990s, commercial catches of greenlings, which had been heavily fished by recreational fishermen, grew again in the late 1990s, and by 1999 were double recreational catch levels.
California legislation provides only general guidance in allocating catches. Section 7055 of the Marine Life Management Act states:
(c) Where a species is the object of sportfishing, a sufficient resource shall be maintained to support a reasonable sport use, taking into consideration the necessity of regulating individual sport fishery bag limits to the quantity that is sufficient to provide a satisfying sport.
In discussing requirements for fishery management plans, Section 7072(c) provides the following general guidance:
(c) To the extent that conservation and management measures in a fishery management plan either increase or restrict the overall harvest in a fishery, fishery management plans shall allocate those increases or restrictions fairly among recreational and commercial sectors participating in the fishery.
Absent clear policy direction, alternatives for allocating nearshore catches included the following:
a) Allocate OYs entirely to recreational fishermen;
The first three alternatives are entirely arbitrary. The latter three alternatives reflect some recognition of historical participation in the fishery. The Commission used the last option in allocating OYs for cabezon, greenlings, and sheephead. Below are the OYs, the allocations set by the Commission at its December meeting, the percent change these allocations represented from 1999 catches, and the measures the Commission adopted to keep catches within these levels.
Sheephead: OY was set at 223,483 pounds. The recreational allocation is 135,524 lbs (a 22% reduction), and the commercial allocation is 87,959 lbs (a 30% reduction). The measures are:
- a recreational size limit of 12" ;
Cabezon: OY was set at 178,728 lbs. The recreational allocation is 111,596 lbs (no reduction), while the commercial allocation is 67,132lbs (a 79% reduction). Note that between 1994 and 1999, commercial landings of cabezon increased nearly fourfold, while recreational catches fell 21%. The measures are:
- a commercial and recreational size limit of 15";
Greenlings: OY was set at 39,823 lbs. The initial recreational allocation was 34,651 lbs (a doubling over 1999 catches), while the initial commercial allocation was 5,172 lbs (an 84% reduction). (Commercial catches increased more than fourfold in 1994-99 while recreational catches fell by 75%.) The Commission effectively reallocated part of the sport allocation to the commercial sector by not adopting two measures for the commercial fishery: a 13-inch size limit and a 50-pound monthly cumulative trip limit. Based on the Department's estimates, this amounts to roughly 7,649 pounds. The measures are:
- a seasonal closure of the commercial fishery in January-February south of Point Conception, and in March-April from Point Conception to Cape Mendocino;
In addition to these interim regulations on cabezon, greenlings, and sheephead, several other recent Federal and State regulations limit the catch of nearshore finfish and affect the allocation between the recreational and commercial sectors in California. For example, fishing for rockfish is closed during January-February in the south and during March-April in the north. The allocation of nearshore finfish to the commercial sector for 2000 was reduced by the Federal Pacific Fishery Management Council. Beginning in March 2000, the Fish and Game Commission reduced the recreational bag limit for rockfish, which includes several nearshore species, by one third--from 15 to 10. The Commission also imposed a recreational gear limitation of one line and three hooks; previously, there was no limit on lines or hooks. At its December 8 meeting, the Commission further restricted recreational gear, lowering the hook limit from three to two.
The measures adopted by the Commission in December are aimed
at stabilizing the nearshore finfish fishery in the face of
growing fishing pressure. Some or all of these measures may
be considered for inclusion in the fishery management plan
for the nearshore finfish fishery, which the Commission is to
adopt by January 1, 2002. During 2001, the Department and
Commission will involve commercial and recreational
fishermen, scientists, conservationists, and other citizens
in the development and review of the fishery management
Principles for Management of Pacific Rockfish
The American Fisheries Society--the oldest and largest association of fishery scientists--recently released its policy for the management of Pacific rockfish. This policy recommends several actions:
o Fishing mortality should be kept at low levels in light of the limited and unpredictable capacity of these species for population growth.
Goals and Standards of the Marine Life Management Act
In evaluating measures for managing fisheries under its jurisdiction, including interim management measures for the nearshore finfish fishery, the Commission is to be guided by the Marine Life Management Act (MLMA). Relevant here are the following passages from the Fish and Game Code:
o Among the general objectives, the MLMA calls for allowing and encouraging "only those activities and uses of marine living resources that are sustainable."