Fishing rules to have ripple effect

By Laura Linden
San Mateo County Times
October 01, 2002
Half Moon Bay, Pillar Point Harbor

To earn cash between sport-fishing gigs, Baxter ferries grieving people out to sea to deposit their loved ones' ashes.

"It's a good sideline," said Baxter, who earns $200 an hour with a state cremation disposal license.

Such somber expeditions could soon become his mainstay.

In mid-September, the federal Pacific Fishery Management Council cut the formerly year-round recreational groundfish fishing season in half because of intense overfishing.

The rules for 2003 will surely gnaw into the economy at Pillar Point Harbor, where five party boats draw crowds of people looking to hook rockfish on day cruises. Party boat operators say rockfish aren't their prime catch, but the species are still a significant source of income.

"May and June are prime months for rockfishing, but we won't be able to go," said Baxter, captain of the New Captain Pete. Baxter wants to remind the public that the rockfishing season is currently open.

"We're still alive and kicking," Baxter said.

An emergency measure closed the groundfish season for November and December, but industry officials say there's a chance that plan could be reversed at the state Fish and Game Commission meeting Oct. 25.

In 2003, sport anglers and charter boat operators looking for groundfish will be banned from the ocean from Jan. 1 through June 30, with the season commencing July 1 and lasting the balance of the year. During the shortened season, fishing will be restricted to water no deeper than 120 feet.

The resultant decline in sport groundfish angling is expected to have an impact on everyone from fishermen to seafood markets to deck hands to wholesale processors. What's more, the unprecedented rules are expected to last for many years, possibly decades, to allow dwindling rockfish populations to bounce back.

"We're already seeing an impact. We have berth vacancies that we usually don't have," said Jim Tucker, chair of the San Mateo County Harbor District board.

According to an economic analysis of the Pacific Fishery Management Council, Northern California's $27 million recreational groundfish industry will shrink by nearly $12 million in 2003, or 44 percent.

The new restrictions apply only to the groundfish fishery; they do not affect fishing for salmon, tuna and several other species. Nevertheless, the groundfish ban has caused an uproar in the recreational fishing industry and spawned a turf war with commercial fishermen, who are contending with severe restrictions as well.

The Coastside Fishing Club, a 2,700-member group of Bay Area recreational fishers, contends that their commercial brethren are the most responsible for depleting rockfish. Tom Mattusch, a leader of the group, said the association has retained a San Francisco law firm with a plan to sue the state Fish and Game Commission, which enforces the federally devised protections.

The ocean is a public resource and so "the public should have the right to fish," said Mattusch, captain of a 53-foot party boat, the Hulicat.

On the Hulicat, Mattusch said snaring rockfish makes up 15 to 20 percent of his business. That money can't be dismissed, considering that he recently had to fork out $125,000 to install two new motors in the boat, he said.

"A lot of people are scratching their heads to figure out how to make boat payments and slip rent," said Mattusch, who pays $7,000 a year in boat insurance.

Bob Ingles, captain of the Queen of Hearts, is the only member of the party boat fleet who specializes in light tackle rockfishing in shallow waters.

Taking away his niche six months out of the year will hurt him, he said.

Ingles, Baxter and others said they will probably focus more on salmon, but the season doesn't open until April 15. They said they will try to tap more into the whale-watching business, but doubted if it could sustain them.

Baxter is not sure how he will patch together a livelihood next year, especially with a kindergartner and 18-month-old. Echoing so many other fishers, Baxter said all he knows is he wants to continue making a living on the ocean.

"I have no other skill," he said.