By: Bob Humphrey
April 6, 2001
I am writing in response to the Front page article, Fishers at War Over Threatened Rockfish, April 05, 2001.
Perhaps you have been fortunate enough to experience the awe inspiring exhibits at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. One of them, a thirty five foot deep tank of sea water, displays a beautiful example of a healthy California kelp forest community. The exhibit brings back fond memories for many skin divers who have been diving our coast for any number of years. Fond memories are virtually all they have left because, with the exception of a few small reserves on our coast, the kelp forests no longer appear as may be seen at the aquarium.
Almost universally, divers voice dismay as they describe the changes they have seen occur in this fragile habitat over the last few years. Both divers and fishermen seem to agree that, though gradual changes have been evident for some time, it was only during the last ten years or so, during the rapid expansion of a new commercial fishery, that the decline became alarming.
It was only as recently as 1989 that a market and fishery developed that targets "live fish", almost exclusively nearshore rockfish species taken from within and around the limited kelp forest habitat. The value the market placed on these fish was ten times and more what they were worth dead. Repeating an oft told story, market forces have succeeded in creating a kind of "Gold Rush" for the resource. As available stocks became more scarce and prices surged, commercial fishermen, seeking to capitalize on the lucrative market, were driven to find fishing methods more effective than a simple rod and reel. The fishery soon became dominated by two kinds of gear called sticks and traps. The interior portions of the kelp forest, long a refuge from the sport fisher's easily tangled fishing line, was no match for these new commercial methods and thus, there was no longer a safe haven where these sedentary species could be at least partly protected.
The California Department of Fish and Game's own studies gave evidence to how these gears could be very destructive to residential fish populations and yet allowed the depletion to continue. In fact, a 1993 Department study states, "Because of the gear's effectiveness and non-selectivity, trapping has the potential to negatively effect marine resources if not properly monitored and managed. In fact, fish trapping has already been banned in several areas of the world because of its detrimental effect on coral reef communities." In addition, the "sticks", originally developed by Department biologists for research studies and adopted by commercial fishermen are hardly better than the traps, also allowing intense fishing to occur in areas once somewhat protected by natural barriers. Despite the study, there has evidently been no follow up performed to assess the results of Department measures to control the fishery. For the many divers and fishermen who have been in the water for the last ten years, the results have been obvious.
Many conservation minded recreational divers and fishermen wonder why the Department of Fish and Game, which initially encouraged this commercial fishery, didn't take steps to curtail it before more damage was done. Why, even after the Department's own studies had described this intense fishery's potential to decimate this little understood resource, had it done so little? Why did the Department allow this fishery to expand when the nearshore resource had already shown signs of decline from the sport fishery, the long time predominate fishery in the area?
Relative to overall marine resources available to the fish buying public, the nearshore represents only a tiny fraction. In contrast, the same area represents a huge part of California's recreational access to fishing, diving, and other ways to enjoy these resources.
The April 3rd, 2001 meeting in Oakland was where an unprecedented number of conservation minded divers and fishermen showed they have had enough. They were calling for the Department of Fish and Game to end the sell off of this resource which is so valuable to all Californians.
Note: In addition to being CENCAL's Marine Resources Director and a member of the DFG's advisory committee,Bob Humphrey has been a breath hold skin diver for thirty years. He is a married father of five and a veteran firefighter. He has actively been involved for two years in activities to understand this issue and help improve the outcome.