State fishing industry reeling over new rules

Take will be severely reduced

Dec. 7, 1999
Press Democrat Staff Writer

Everybody involved in catching, processing or protecting ocean fish agree that something needed to be done to slow the decline of rockfish, but nobody, it seems, is happy about new state and federal regulations governing the Pacific Coast resource.

Trawler fishermen, who take 95 percent of the rockfish off California, Oregon and Washington, are worried rules imposed by the Pacific Fisheries Management Council and the California Fish and Game Commission will translate into a 40 to 50 percent reduction in the catch valued now at as much as $80 million.

Fish processing plants from San Luis Obispo to Bellingham, Wash., wonder if such a drop in the catch will force some plants out of business or lead to a consolidation of an industry still recovering from a similar reduction in the catch two years ago.

Zeke Grader, director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations in San Francisco, said two-month season closings imposed to reduce the amount of fish the big trawler boats drag out of the ocean are being unfairly applied to hook-and-line fishermen who don't take that many fish and need to be on the water as often as possible.

Karen Garrison, an analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the limits on commercial and sport rockfishing boats are a "worthy try'' but flawed because Congress refuses to provide funding to put observers aboard commercial drag boats to determine the status of the declining rockfish species.

"If we are going to solve this problem we have to get observers on those boats,'' she said.

The Pacific Fishery Management Council last month adopted a new set of regulations for the Pacific Coast designed to limit catches of four species of rockfish -- bocaccio, lingcod, cowcod, and canary rockfish -- and Pacific Ocean perch. Last week the state Fish and Game Commission adopted similar regulations for ocean fishing off the California coast.

The state commission also established new regulations on taking of abalone. The regulations continue to limit abalone fishing to north of San Francisco Bay and retains the current limit of four per person per day and the current seven-month season. But it reduces the maximum abalone a person can take a year from 700 to 100.

Under the state regulations, the one-time year-round rockfishing season will be closed for two months next year during high-catch periods -- January and February from Monterey south and March and April north of Monterey.

For sport fishermen and charter boats, the new rules will reduce the rockfish limit from 15 to 10.

Big trawler rigs will be prohibited from taking fish caught in nets that roll on eight-inch wheels to allow fishermen to navigate through rocky terrain that is important habitat for rock fish.

Pete Leipzig, executive director of the Eureka-based Fishermen's Marketing Association, which represents 150 trawlers and 500 fishermen, estimated that big boat operators will see their catch reduced by as much as 40 percent as a result of the new rules.

"A 40 percent cut in revenue, that's what we are anticipating and it is going to translate in reduced earnings and impacts,'' he said.

Leipzig said he expects some impact on consumer prices, but that competition from British Columbia, which has no similar rockfish limits, should moderate the impact on retail markets.

He said he expects American trawlers will attempt to remain competitive by marketing their products directly to restaurants and other high-end buyers. That will translate, he said, in less fish going to Fish-processing plants.

"Those people who cut fish will have less to do because fish might be going straight to the restaurant. It has a ripple down through the whole fishing community,'' Leipzig said.

Rod Moore, executive director of the West Coast Seafood Processors Association, said he anticipates a smaller variety and volume of fish.

He said most of the 10 processing companies on the Pacific Coast process about 80 percent of the crab, shrimp and rockfish caught in the Pacific. If there is a big drop in rockfish, the impact on plant operations will affect the other products as well.

Rick Powers, who operates sport charters out of Bodega Bay, said he'll attempt to offer his customers something new next year rather than just live with the new regulations.

Powers said the new regulations would have cut by a third the number of fish 22 of his customers took home on Monday. He said each angler caught a limit of rockfish Monday for a total of 330 fish.

"Under the new regulations, we would have had to stop at 220 rockfish,'' he said.

Powers said said he'll try something new to deal with the reduced rockfish limits.

"We'll include some new flat fish we haven't concentrated on in the past. There are no limits on sand dabs and petrale sole,'' he said.

Sand dabs are little but good eating and sole is popular.

"I think we are going to start a new industry,'' he said.