May 9, 2001
I am a member of the Natural Resources Defense Council, and since 1975 I have SCUBA dived and breathhold spearfished throughout California, from San Diego to Fort Bragg, including at all of the Channel Islands. I have spearfished most often on the Los Angeles and Ventura county coasts; at the islands of Catalina, Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa and Santa Barbara; in northern Big Sur and Carmel and Monterey bays, and on the North Coast from Jenner (Sonoma County) to Fort Bragg (Mendocino County).
Among the shallow reef and kelp forest species I have taken are various Sebastes rockfish, Ling Cod, Cabezon, California Sheepshead, Calico Bass, Barred Sand Bass, White Sea Bass, various perches, California Halibut, Flounder, Turbot, and Yellowtail (the quasi-pelagic jack). Occasionally I have also rod-and-reel fished for deeper-reef species, such as Boccacio, from a sea kayak and on charter party boats and friends' boats out of Santa Cruz, Half Moon Bay, San Francisco and Bodega Bay. Finally, I have also purchased local-caught market fish for the table, including "Red Snapper" (Sebastes rockfish) and Ling Cod.
I have also enjoyed non-consumptive use of the above-mentioned species, through observation and aesthetic appreciation while diving. Indeed, the rockfishes-especially the engaging and colorful Sebastes group-are among the fish most valued by the many California recreational SCUBA divers who do not take game. Many of these fish are territorial and relatively unafraid of divers, allowing rewardingly close observation of their diverse and interesting forms, colors and behaviors.
By the middle-1980's I began to see what I feared was the decline of many California reef fishes due to sport and commercial overfishing. I first came to suspect that Calico Bass and Sheepshead at the Channel Islands were declining in number and, notably, size. Next, Ling Cod seemed to follow a similar pattern of declining abundance and size; I noticed this particularly on the Sonoma and Mendocino coasts. And, nearly everywhere, the Sebastes rockfishes and shallow reef species of every type declined sharply in the decade of the 1990's.
When diving for abalone on the North Coast I formerly always carried a speargun in my kayak, and after gathering abalone I often took a few fish as well: mostly Blues and Blacks (Sebastes rockfishes) and the occasional Ling Cod. Over time, as I saw fewer and smaller fish, I found myself spearfishing less and less, and often returning only with abalone. Eventually I realized that was rarely taking the gun out of the kayak, and I began leaving it home when I went to the North Coast.
I last took a Ling Cod, a Sheepshead or a Sebastes rockfish in the late 80's or early 90's. In recent years I have rarely seen a large Ling Cod outside of a no-take reserve such as Point Lobos in Monterey County, where they are strikingly numerous. I have no wish to take the barely-legal-sized Ling Cod I see elsewhere. (Moreover, I believe it would now be illegal to take Ling Cod of any size. Mature Sheepshead seem even rarer--which is especially alarming, since in these gender-shifting fish only the largest individual females become the males of the species. As to Sebastes rockfishes, although they are delicious I would be embarrassed to take such tiny fish as I usually see today.
Now I no longer spearfish except in the Channel Islands and Baja California. In the Islands I take mostly Calico Bass or, often, nothing at all. To dive in California is now less enjoyable--it is even sad--knowing as I do how vibrant with fish many of the reefs were just twenty-five years ago.
Paul D. Clark