Fishermen Worry About Conservation

California is attempting to implement sweeping
measures in the Pacific Ocean

By Leon Drouin Keith AP
Published Sunday, September 2, 2001

Los Angeles -- The commercial fishermen on the docks at San Pedro aren't hauling in the catches they used to.

The 22 boats based there still bring in tons of sardines, mackerel and squid. But Cliff Harvey, who grew up around the harbor and worked there for most of his 81 years, remembers the days when a fleet of 300 boats routinely came home heavy with tuna, barracuda, yellowtail and Mexican sea bass.

Many commercial fishermen attribute the dramatic drop-off to regulations that keep them from going after marine species they know have rebounded.

"Everybody's trying to run us out of business, but we fed the world," said fishing boat captain Sal Russo as his crew unloaded a 65-ton catch of sardines.

Fishermen like Russo find themselves caught in the middle of an ongoing push by the state to implement a pair of sweeping conservation-minded measures passed by the Legislature in 1998.

State officials, environmentalists and even some fishermen say the new rules could send California to the forefront of fisheries management. But the regulations also mean that at least in the short term, fishermen and consumers will have to cope with getting fewer fish.

One measure, the Marine Life Management Act, aims to end the pattern of overfishing one species after another by making sustainability a primary goal. The other, the Marine Life Protection Act, will set up an unprecedented string of no-fishing zones along the California coast to protect marine ecosystems.

"This is a new way of doing business," said John Ugoretz, a marine biologist with the state Department of Fish and Game. "We are being watched quite closely by the rest of the country and the rest of the world."

Many in the fishing industry are split over the plans.

Harvey, who has owned a seafood processing and distributing company since 1946, agreed that fishermen are frustrated by the "guesswork" that currently goes into government fisheries management. But he sees a bigger problem.

"Most of it is the fish just not being there," he said. "Eventually, we'll end up with just fish farms. It's a case of too many people, and the ocean is the same size."

Much of the world's fishing has been marked by a series of boom-bust cycles that many marine biologists say have left ocean waters less diverse. Judging by century-old records of the sport fishing Tuna Club of Avalon, several species, including yellowtail and tuna, showed major declines in abundance and maximum size as commercial fishing in Southern California intensified in the early 1900s.

"The good old days are a lot longer ago than anybody seems to think," said Alec MacCall, a marine biologist with the Southwest Fisheries Science Center in Santa Cruz who studied the Tuna Club's records.

While fishing regulations covering such things as take limits and gear restrictions have increased over the decades, they have failed to prevent the ecological collapse of some fishing areas.

The state is currently trying to recover from the collapse of its rockfish and abalone fisheries.

Fishermen and regulators thought abalone was being sustainably harvested until the late 1990s, when warm waters from El Niño and a disease called withering foot syndrome decimated several species. Now abalone are completely off-limits in Southern California; one species, red abalone, can be taken in Northern California under strict conditions.

"We don't want to get caught in the same situation we were with abalone, where we were blindly thinking that things were pretty good, but it collapsed despite all the laws in place," said Zeke Grader, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations.

To avoid such problems, the Marine Life Management Act calls on Fish and Game to set up plans that use science and public input to manage the impact of fishing -- not just on the species fished but on the ecosystem in which they swim.

The legislation calls for the first two plans targeting white sea bass and nearshore groundfish to be approved by the Fish and Game Commission by year's end.

"We're now taking a more precautionary approach," said Patty Wolf, marine region manager for Fish and Game. "We're realizing more and more that we don't have all the information we need, but we use the best information we have."

That means in cases where the effect of fishing is uncertain, the state will rule on the side of conservation instead of more fishing.

That frustrates squid fishermen, whose business has boomed in recent years as Asian and European markets have become more accessible. Proposed rules would limit their take, even though it's not clear that the species is being overfished.

"They're saying they want to save the fishery, if it's in trouble," said Nick Jurlin Sr., who has been fishing out of San Pedro and other Pacific ports since the late 1940s. "At one time it was fun to fish --you made a good living at it, you fed your family -- but it's gotten to the point that you have to become a politician."

Fishermen are even more dubious about Fish and Game's initial proposal to create a system of no-fishing zones and other marine protected areas under the Marine Life Protection Act. The proposal, released this summer, would restrict or ban fishing in roughly one-sixth of state waters three miles from the coast.

Fishermen -- both commercial and sport -- have responded to the proposal with outrage in public hearings.

"The scientists have developed a kind of denial in that they think they can design reserves without considering people or small business," said Chris Miller, a Santa Barbara lobsterman who took part in a separate process to create marine reserves around Channel Islands National Park.

"We need to stage this thing -- don't force us to give up so much so fast," said Robert Fletcher, president of the Sportfishing Association of California.

Marine biologists and environmentalists contend that marine protected areas will help ensure that species are not fished to dangerously low levels. Fishermen will benefit in the long run because many fish that grow up in reserves will ultimately be caught outside of them, they say.

Several reserves have shown such residual benefits, including a small one near the Channel Islands that is ringed with lobster traps. But while many fishermen agree that reserves could lead to increases in species such as lobster and rockfish that tend to stay in one area, they say there is no evidence they will help the migratory species that make up the bulk of the commercial catch.

Wolf of Fish and Game believes many fishermen ultimately will support the plan as it changes to incorporate their concerns. The department has asked the Legislature for another year to finalize the plan, which currently has a deadline of summer 2002.

Some commercial fishermen say they're being unfairly cast as destroyers of the environment, and that many of the boom-bust cycles they're blamed for are natural.

But scientists say fishermen are underestimating their impact on the environment.

"People have to realize that reserves have to be very large, they have to realize they can't fish in them at all," said Jeremy Jackson, a marine ecologist at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. "We've taken and taken and taken, and now we're going to have to let things be for a good, long time."