by Dan Bacher (Published In Anderson Valley Advertiser, July 2002)
When I began fishing for rockfish off Santa Cruz 23 years ago, I never envisioned the day when the federal government would close fishing to recreational anglers because of the rape of the fishery by an over-capitalized commercial fishing fleet. However, that day, "Black Thursday," finally arrived on June 20 in Foster City at a meeting of the Pacific Fishery Management Council.
The Council , a multi-state, quasi- governmental body that supposedly manages fishery resources, decided to close indefinitely California´s recreational fishery for shelf rockfish and lingcod in ocean waters 20 fathoms (120 feet) and deeper south of Cape Mendocino starting July 1.
This drastic measure was the direct result of the Council´s many years of abysmally poor "management" of commercial trawl, gillnet and longline fisheries that have decimated rockfish populations. Since shelf rockfish are long-lived species with some growing up to 80 to 100 years it may take several generations of anglers to see a restored shelf fishery.
For those not familiar with rockfish, there are nearly 60 species of these unique, tasty and formerly plentiful fish. Members of the sebastes family, they range from shallow water species such as gopher and kelp rockfish, that live in the kelp beds next to shore, to deep water fish such as black gill rockfish that commonly inhabit water 900 to 1000 feet deep. These colorful and varied fish have been the staple of the recreational and commercial fishery along the California and Oregon coast for nearly 100 years. In stores, they are commonly marketed as Pacific Red Snapper or rockcod.
It´s not hard to see why the rockfish fishery has been totally mismanaged, when you consider that the Council´s composition is a classic example of the fox guarding the hen house. The council is made up mostly of men in suits, including federal and state wildlife and fisheries agency representatives, commercial fishing industry interests and seafood processors. Recreational anglers, divers, conservation groups, Indian tribes and grassroots commercial fishermen have little or no representation.
Paul Battsford, a purple-haired commercial salmon troller out of Fishermen´s Wharf in San Francisco, summed up the gut level feeling of many fishermen when he told the council during the public comment session, "You should all be put in prison!"
The closure prohibits the take of rockfish, lingcod, ocean whitefish and California scorpionfish in waters 20 fathoms and greater. In waters less than 20 fathoms, recreational anglers may continue to take nearshore species of rockfish and lingcod, and retain two "shelf" rockfish (not including bocaccio, cowcod, canary and yelloweye rockfish.) Anglers can continue to fish for halibut, king salmon and flounder in these waters.
The Council imposed the emergency closure after it determined that the annual harvest limits set for bocaccio rockfish had been already met for the season. The Council said recreational anglers had already taken 60 metric tons, 4 tons over the annual sport harvest of 56 metric tons, by the end of April.
The measures took place after a federal assessment in May revealed that the situation of shelf rockfish was even bleaker than previously thought. Nine out of the sixteen species of rockfish assessed by state and federal fishery biologists have been listed as "overfished."
The most "overfished," bocaccio, yelloweye and canary rockfish, are being managed under rebuilding plans set forth by the Magnuson-Stevens Act. Bocaccio have declined to about 5 percent of their original abundance, according to federal assessments.
However, biologists at the meeting provided conflicting evidence on the exact status of shelf and near shore rockfish populations. "Widow, canary and blue rockfish stocks are at near-record highs, according to this year´s rockfish survey," testified one federal biologist.
" Some stocks, such as chilipepper rockfish, are looking pretty good," confirmed Elizabeth Clarke, a fishery biologist for the Northwest Regional office of NMFS, confirmed.
During the meeting´s public comment section, both recreational and commercial fishermen blasted the Council for its failure to manage the fishery. Representatives of sport fishing groups fought a proposal that would have limited anglers to water 60 feet and less. This proposal would not only reduce angling opportunity, but endanger the lives of anglers being forced to go into shallow water.
Rick Thornton of Anchor Charters in Fort Bragg said that forcing anglers to anglers shallower than 20 fathoms would put small boaters into danger by forcing them to go into 60 feet of water and less on marginal sea conditions. "Also, very seldom do we catch bocaccio in water less than 30 fathoms in the Fort Bragg area," he emphasized.
"Any further reduction from 120 feet will put commercial passenger fishing vessels (charter boats) out of business," stated Robert Ingles of the Golden Gate Fisherman´s Association. "Also, you need to consider the safety factor, particularly with the private boats, in 60 feet of water and less."
Zeke Grader, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen´s Associations, which represents commercial fishing groups, said the current rockfish disaster points to the need for better science and management.
"The shelf rockfish fishery has collapsed for two reasons (1) they didn´t have good science and (2) the PFMC didn´t act with as much caution as it should have over the past 10 years," said Grader.
Grader emphasized that the federal government encouraged the buildup in the trawl and longline groundfish fisheries, including providing loan guarantees for new and larger vessel construction, without having done any stock assessments. This resulted in increased pressure on the fishery. Rick Powers, captain of the New Sea Angler charter boat in Bodega Bay, pointed out the inequity between the Council´s treatment of recreational fishermen, who have been tightly regulated for decades, and the commercial fleet, who have been until recently unregulated in groundfish take.
"It´s a crime for the Council to take the right of the recreational angler away because they didn´t manage the gill netters and draggers in the 70´s and 80´s, said an angry Powers. The trawl fleet was unregulated for many years while recreational anglers were regulated the whole time. The problem is not of mismanagement, but a lack of management of the commercial groundfish fishery.
Additional sport fishing "management" measures may be imposed in the Council´s September meetings, including draconian reductions in recreational bag limits to as little 5 rockfish, in options discussed at they PFMC meeting. But these measures don´t address the problem why the rockfish catastrophe occurred in the first place - the Council´s preference for commercial fishing over recreational fishing.
"Commercial fishing lands over 90% of the fish in California, and reducing that percentage is 90% of the solution," said Jim Martin, vice president of the Near Shore Chapter. "The real problem is the DFG's institutional bias against recreational fishing. I've seen it time and time again, the Department staff bending over backwards to make things work for commercial fishermen. They even showed the commercials how to use live-fish "stick gear" - really nothing more than longlines broken up into shorter lengths.
Bob Strickland, president of United Anglers of California, said he is pushing the Council to allow anglers to fish for rockfish and lingcod in 20 fathoms and less in November and December, now that recreational anglers have been banned from the shelf indefinitely.
It is absolutely clear from attending the meeting that the Pacific Fishery Management Council is an incompetent body that needs to be reformed or eliminated. If its ostensible purpose was to "manage" the fishery, it has completely failed to do this.
The council and state and federal governments have presided over the rape of the shelf fishery and only reacted after the fishery neared a crisis level, just like the parallel "management council" on the East Coast presided over the collapse of the Atlantic cod fishery. When the Magnuson-Stevens Act is reauthorized by Congress, it must be overhauled to include more representation by recreational anglers, Indian tribes and conservation groups and more enforcement "teeth" in the law.
While the closure will ostensibly protect the shelf rockfish populations, it will put even more pressure upon the near shore fishery and the striped bass and halibut populations of San Francisco and Monterey bays. One immediate step necessary to begin rockfish recovery is to implement "the Washington plan," where commercial fishing for groundfish is banned within 3 miles of shore. This would be a much better plan than the PFMC proposals that put the remaining commercial and recreational fishermen together on the near shore fishery increasing pressure on an already fragile fishery.
"The rockfish and lingcod fishery is a public resource," Bob Strickland said. "It doesn´t belong to the commercial fishing industry, it belongs to the people of California."
(For more information, contact Bob Strickland of United Anglers, (408) 371-0331, or Jim Martin, Near Shore Chapter, (707) 964-8326)