New lines in the water

Hard-pressed fishermen brace for proposed new fishing
restrictions along the North Coast

July 9, 2001
By Carol Benfell
The Press Democrat, Santa Rosa CA

Recreational and commercial fishermen would be barred from nearly a dozen ocean fishing areas totaling approximately 25 square miles along the coast under a new proposal by the state Department of Fish and Game.

The proposed closed areas include rocky shoals along the Sonoma and Mendocino coasts, such as Fort Ross, that serve as fish nurseries and where groundfish abound.

A 1-mile swath also would be closed around the Farallon Islands, historically one of the most productive fishing areas in Northern California.

The proposal is an outgrowth of a 1999 law calling for the creation of "marine protected areas" that was supported by the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, the Ocean Conservancy and the National Resources Defense Council, among others.

Fish and Game officials hope restricting fishing areas will save habitat and help restore the groundfish fishery.

The first of some 20 public workshops on the proposal is scheduled for 7-10 tonight in Sebastopol at the Sebastopol Teen Center, 425 Morris St.

"We expect a wide diversity of groups, and we expect the meeting to be contentious and emotional," said Paul Riley, the program coordinator in Fish and Game's Monterey office.

Contention appears guaranteed.

"I'm disgusted with it," said Mike Harbarth, who runs a charter boat out of Bodega Bay. "There are more rockfish up the coast now than there were five years ago. "This is really going to hurt us. If they take away Fort Ross, they take away trips we could be making," Harbarth said. He regularly takes fishermen to the Fort Ross marine area, particularly when weather is rough.

Groundfish 80% down

Groundfish stocks have declined as much as 80 percent in the past 20 years, according to the Pacific Fisheries Management Council, a federal agency that sets the rules for each fishing season.

The groundfish category encompasses dozens of species, including lingcod, whiting, jack mackeral and bocaccio, sold in stores as red snapper.

Under the law, Fish and Game is required to reclassify and rename current marine reserves, which have different names and different levels of protection, and to create one coherent system that will be clear to fishermen.

Scientists on Fish and Game's review panel also expanded eight existing refuges and created five new ones. Altogether, the proposal affects 16 areas from San Francisco Bay to the Oregon border.

One refuge that would expand dramatically is the Bodega Marine Life Refuge, just off the University of California Bodega Marine Laboratory near Bodega Bay.

The existing refuge extends about a mile along the shore and 1,000 feet into the ocean. The proposed refuge would stretch about 2 miles along the shore and more than a mile out into the ocean.

Peter Connors, the marine lab's reserve manager, said he endorses the concept of marine protected areas and welcomes the expansion of the Bodega refuge, where the university does research.

"There's ever-increasing fishery pressure -- heavier fishing at the boundary of the refuge and within the boundary," Connors said. "Pushing the boundary out farther would be helpful."

But Billy Gianquinto, a sports fisherman and former commercial fisherman, said the proposal is too little, too late.

Commercial fishing blamed

He says Fish and Game stood by for a decade while the groundfish fishery was decimated by commercial boats providing juvenile groundfish to Bay Area markets. Now, Gianquinto says, sports fishermen will be penalized, when the real culprit was commercial fishing in the mid-'80s and '90s.

The state Legislature stepped in and barred commercial fishing within a mile of the coast, and the groundfish populations are rebounding as a result, he said.

"Now, all of sudden, years after the fact, Fish and Game is coming in saying they want to protect the fish," Gianquinto said.

The Fish and Game proposal establishes three levels of protection:

State marine reserves, such as Point Arena and Fort Ross, where all fishing would be banned.

State marine parks, such as Salt Point, where limited sports fishing would be allowed.

State marine conservation areas, such as the Sonoma Coast beach, where limited commercial and sports fishing would be allowed.

Many in the commercial fishing industry support the creation of marine protected areas, because there are too few fish now to support the number of boats, said Zeke Grader, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, a commercial fishermen's group.

But Grader said he was upset because fishermen have been left out of the planning process.

"Fish and Game was supposed to have brought in fishermen before the public meetings to sit down with the scientists, but that hasn't happened," Grader said.

Workshops in fishing season

"Now they're holding meetings right in the middle of the fishing season, when it's going to be hard for fishermen to attend," Grader said.

But Riley said the department thought fishermen would be better able to comment if there was something on the table for them to support or attack.

The department will use comments from the fishermen at the workshops to refine the proposal, which will then become a draft proposal and go to the Fish and Game Commission. Formal public hearings will be held after that, Riley said.

The department realizes this is fishing season, but it is under the gun to have the draft proposal to the commission by January, Riley said.

"We're doing the best we can," Riley said.

You can reach Staff Writer Carol Benfell at 521-5259 or e-mail cbenfell@pressdemocrat.com