Fishing Gone

The California Fish and Game Commission gathered in an emergency meeting in Santa Barbara on October 23rd, then flew to Crescent City on October 24th and 25th for a regularly scheduled hearing. It was a dark week for fishing. Major decisions were made by a bare quorum of Commissioners, with only three out of five members in attendance. They approved one hundred and seventy square miles of no-fishing zones around the Channel Islands off Santa Barbara.

A couple of days later, when they saw what they had done, they just about closed the entire ocean to all personal harvest, while allowing industrial fishing to continue.

Meet the Fish and Game Commission

The Commission is a quasi-judicial body of political appointees who are paid only a modest per-diem for their efforts in a very high-profile position. They provide guidance and oversight to the Department staff and have enormous powers they rarely exercise. On August 17th, just in time for the election, Governor Gray Davis announced the appointment of Robert Hattoy to the Fish and Game Commission. Hattoy is a former Clinton administration staffer, and long-time employee of the Sierra Club. Hattoy's appointment, yet to be approved by the State Senate, allowed him to cast the deciding vote in favor of a system of marine reserves, one that disproportionately affects the recreational fishing public. Hattoy joined a fellow environmentalist on the CFGC, Samuel Schucat (pronounced "shook-it"), who also sits on the Coastal Commission. Michael Chrisman, a republican, Wilson-era appointee, is a rancher. Two Commissioners, Michael Flores and James Kellogg, failed to appear at either of these meetings, at which some of the most important decisions in decades were passed. The original date of the meeting at which the issue was to have been decided was in December, after the election. Flores, an intelligent man, has been suspected to be a friend to outdoors hunting and fishing enthusiasts, because he's a duck hunter and asks some pointed questions. James Kellogg, an official with the pipefitters, steamfitters, and plumbers union, also likes to hunt and fish but he has been more or less a cipher since his recent appointment. Their absence was an suspicious sign that the fix was in. Gov. Davis announced a press conference to herald the creation of the Channel Island marine reserves before the final decision had been made by the Commission. Non-commercial fishermen who attended several years' worth of hearings on the Channel Islands marine reserve issue came away from the whole thing absolutely convinced that public input had been ignored. The short-handed panel, comprised of Michael Chrisman, Robert Hattoy, and Samuel Schucat, voted 2-1 to accept the Department's preferred alternative for marine reserves. Chrisman voted against. The size, placement, and rationale behind these reserves is especially burdensome in Southern California because the areas are prime fishing grounds in shallow water that is accessible by recreational gear. Corporate environmental foundations have placed the concept of marine reserves at the top of their ocean policy agenda. While appealing in concept, marine reserves have been described by one marine biologist as a "solution in search of a problem." Indeed, Environment, Inc has successfully commandeered the fishery management infrastructure. The Department of Fish & Game's Marine Resources division has been overworked, understaffed, and hijacked from traditional fishery management tasks o implement a series of public hearings on the siting and placement of marine reserves throughout the state. This unfunded mandate came from the Marine Life Protection Act. The David and Lucille Packard Foundation is picking up the tab for a significant portion of the expenses associated with the creation of marine preserve areas (MPAs). Packard money funds both sides of the special-interest resource battle in fishery management between the enviro and the commercial fishing lobbies. Sportfishing stands by the sidelines, making gimmick bets on who would win if you locked Zeke Grader, a commercial lobbyist, and Kate Wing of the NRDC into a room with one knife and a grant application. The marine reserve juggernaut is international in scope, with the United Nations leading the way, along with various elements of the World Trade Organization and NAFTA. Careers are at stake; big money is involved. "I'll brag that the Channel Islands reserve will be the largest in U.S. waters," exclaimed Mary Nichols, California's Secretary of Resources. Nichols, who played a "central role" in the Headwaters deal, was the director of the LA office of the Natural Resources Defense Council before joining the Davis team. She's handling about $4 billion in voter-approved bond money for "parks, open space, habitat, clean water and wildlife." Meanwhile, in the "zones of ecological sacrifice" outside the marine reserves, underwater "parks" and ocean wildernesses, fishery management stumbles forward. In Crescent City, management appears to have fallen and is unable to get up. Commission meetings, like the one in Crescent City last week, represent the only opportunity for the public at large to speak out on our fisheries. Yet the entire process resembles a black box to the public. Decisions made by the Commission at one hearing are completely reversed by the Department staff days later. Input from members of the public is backed up by packed halls of supporters, who overwhelmingly feel that their views are ignored. Add in a perfectly casual violation of the Bagley-Keene Act in Crescent City Thursday night, when all three Commissioners enjoyed a meal of rockfish at the home of a local commercial fisherman, and you've got a recipe for complete and total violation of public trust.

New Fishing Regulations For 2003: Just Don't Do It

It may seem strange that California has banned recreational fishing - even from the shore - while allowing commercial market hunting for those same species of rockfish. But on October 21, DFG Staff Counsel Joseph Milton issued a letter in which he opined, "there is no authority for the proposition that a constitutional or statutory 'recreational preference' governs marine fishery management decisions." In plain English, the 1.7 million saltwater anglers and divers can go pound sand, right along with the $2.4 billion they pump into the economy each year, because a subsidized commercial fishing fleet is first and foremost in California marine fishery management. Recreational fishing for all groundfish, including rockfish, lingcod, cabezon, and greenling, will be closed starting November 1, 2002 until July 1, 2003 - effectively a seasonal closure of the next eight months. Commercial nearshore live fishing, however, will reopen on January 1, 2002, with only a two-month closure next year in March and April. Bag limits will be reduced to accommodate an increased commercial quota for "very shallow water" rockfish species. The DFG wants the recreational fishers to throw back some of the marketable "money" fish - a bad practice biologically speaking. Rockfishing isn't a catch-and-release activity, there's a high mortality rate. Rockfishing is about food, not "sport." The way to fish them is to keep what you catch, regardless of size or species, and take only what 's needed for a few meals. Zero bycatch. The Department and the Commission rejected pleas to leave shore angling and diving open.

The Shelf Closure

There is a very real chance that the total allowable catch of bocaccio will be filled by various commercial fisheries long before any possible re-opening of recreational rockfishing in California. So any discussion of the new reduced bag limits and seasons that were adopted are hypothetical right now. Recreational fishers might not get to keep any rockfish at all in 2003. The entire continental shelf, from 20 fathoms to as deep as 250 fathoms, will be closed to all recreational bottomfishing for at least 100 years -according to the plan-while open to commercial boats outfitted with "selective" trawl gear. This new, commercial-only rockfishing zone, euphemistically labelled a "California Rockfish Conservation Area," extends from the Mexican border to the Oregon border, and out 10-15 miles from shore. It's designed to protect bocaccio and several other species that have been declared overfished. Federal law requires that rebuilding plans be enforced to bring the populations back, but the "best available science" tells us that there is only a 50-50 chance that will happen in 100 years, even if no fishing at all is allowed. In reality, there are millions of bocaccio in the ocean - the salmon were feeding on huge shoals of juvenile bocaccio this June off our north coast. Still, I don't doubt that bocaccio and other deep water fish are having recruitment problems, after decades of bottom-dragging trawls altered their habitat. You'd have recruitment problems, too, if I bulldozed your house on an regular basis. Halibut, sand dabs, salmon, and albacore will not be effected by the shelf closure, unless the tiny 20 metric ton bocaccio statewide limit is exceeded, in which case the feds may close down the whole ocean (except for commercials fishing the deeper "slope" rockfish). You can just about throw a stone from many rocky points on the north coast into 20 fathoms (120 feet deep). Most of the navigation buoys off our local ports are in deeper water. Next time you are stopped in traffic on the Noyo bridge, look out at the entrance buoy, it's just outside 120 feet. From there, and all the way to the visible horizon it's been closed to recreational rockfishing for not only our lifetimes, but for our children's lifetimes. In addition, until July of next year, California's citizens will be prohibited from casting a line from shore anywhere south of Cape Mendocino for any of the 200-plus species of rockfish. Kids can stand on the beach and observe commercial fishermen working the very nearshore. Throughout most of the state, the only way you will catch a California rockfish, from now until July 1st, 2003, is to buy one. Prices may be high. The total allowable catch in the commercial fishery is limited, but will provide for a steady flow of wild fish to the market. The commission voted 3-0 to approve the initial implementation of the Nearshore Final Management Plan and to close the continental shelf to recreational rockfishing.

An Afterthought: Public Testimony

The first speaker up was Randy Fry, a diver and angler from Sacramento, who regularly fishes the North Coast. Fry is president of the NorCal chapter of the Recreational Fishing Alliance, a national saltwater fishing lobby with over 80,000 members around the country. Fry lashed out at the DFG, "a department that will sacrifice the public's fisheries to keep the commercial industry fishing." To illustrate, Fry reminded the Commissioners: "Early this year the Department broke its agreement on the recreational cabezon allocation, further alienating its sportfishing constituency. While the Commission admitted this was a mistake, no corrective action was taken. We are still waiting for the Commission to rectify the situation." Fry called the DFG's proposals "a regulatory maze that has now grown so complex for recreational anglers they most of them must either stop fishing for rock fish or will unknowingly violate the law." He asked whether the Department suffered from a "fiscal death wish" since sportfishing licenses contribute $48 million annually to the DFG budget, which is being stripped of 20% of its budget already, due to the state budget shortfall. "After we heard several Commissioners at the Oakland meeting direct the DFG to maximize recreational fishing opportunities within the overall federal quota," Fry continued, "the Department has returned with a plan proposing just the opposite. We view such action as arrogance! The Department believes they will not be held accountable for ignoring the Commission's directives!" Fry pointed out that massive public investments have been approved by the public in recent initiatives to finance coastal acquisitions for parks, protection of water quality, and restoration of wildlife resources, and now, "the FGC is asked to deny the recreational ocean fisherman access to the ocean for the purpose of recreational fishing." On one hand recreational anglers are precluded from traditional ocean fishing, yet in November they will be asked to support $ 3.4 billion bond measure, Prop 50, a large portion of which is directed to coastal resources with the promise of public recreation." Fry threw down the gauntlet. "Gentlemen, let us be very clear on this. The proposal the DFG has put before you is so damaging to recreational fishing that if adopted it will have significant political and legal repercussions. If you follow the Department's lead on this one, you will be telling all of California that there are not enough fish for a family to catch off the beach, but there are enough for a commercial fishery subsidized by recreational anglers. "We can not support a nearshore commercial harvest until it can be demonstrated by peer-reviewed science that such harvest will not preempt recreational angling, that it will done in manner the provides for a sustainable recreational and commercial fishery, and that the commercial beneficiaries who utilize these public fisheries pay their fair share of the all the costs associated with the management of this exploitation." Next stop is the courtroom.

--Jim Martin