State Sharply Limits Recreational Rockfish Catch

Action comes day after federal officials order commercial
ban in effort to save several species

June 22, 2002

California Fish and Game officials dropped the second shoe on the state's fishing industry Friday, extending to recreational anglers a near-ban on harvesting rockfish adopted for commercial boats a day earlier.

The move, which takes effect July 1, effectively closes the continental shelf south of Cape Mendocino, putting off limits some of the richest fishing grounds on the North Coast.

It's the latest in a series of restrictions aimed at saving several species of rockfish from extinction -- measures expected to be even more Draconian in 2003, a state spokeswoman said.

But "the collateral damage" will be drastic -- knocking more boats out of business, limiting choices for consumers and pinching everyone from marine suppliers to processing plants to restaurants in coastal towns, said Fort Bragg fisherman Tommy Ancona, president of the Fishermen's Marketing Association.

"Groundfish truly has been the backbone of the fishing industry," said Pete Leipzig, executive director of the Marketing Association, whose members hail from Morro Bay to the Canadian border.

The state's action followed a Thursday decision by the federal Pacific Fishery Management Council to prohibit commercial rockfish harvests in waters 120 feet deep or deeper south of Cape Mendocino in Humboldt County.

Federal law requires the management of fish populations and their recovery.

While many species of rockfish are not threatened, the different types are so intermingled that regulators say the chances of catching overfished species are too great a risk to allow any fishing in their rocky habitat.

Of 16 species fully assessed, nine have been over- harvested, biologists say.

They are especially concerned about three species found off central and southern California, including bocaccio, canary and yelloweye rockfish -- all harvested to a fraction of their typical populations.

Federal assessments have determined the bocaccio stock has dwindled by 95 percent and is not expected to recover for at least 90 years.

Like related species, they live decades-long lives and are late to reproduce, and too many are caught before they have a chance, officials said.

The new regulations were passed when a midseason review revealed the federal bocaccio limit for the entire year already had been met in the first six months of 2002, with recreational boats exceeding their allotment by 6 percent, state Fish and Game officials said.

Leipzig, of Eureka, estimated 25 to 40 percent of the coast's fishermen would be directly affected.

Others will suffer the ripple effect of forcing the fleet further inshore or into far deeper, offshore waters in search of nonrestricted fish, he and others said.

"This industry has been hurt by these regulations for a long time, so the cumulative effect is substantial," Leipzig said.

Seven years ago, the West Coast groundfish industry was worth $110 million, he said.

"This year, it's probably $30 million, and that is directly attributable to reductions in quotas that have just progessively become tighter and tighter. And next year it will be down again," he said.

State officials confirmed the limits will be more stringent next year.

"The council is considering rather Draconian measures for 2003, which is closing the entire continental shelf to bottom fishing," Fish and Game spokeswoman Chamois Andersen said. "They are proposing a zero to 14-ton catch for bocaccio next year. That's nothing. That's like saying the entire continental shelf is closed," she said. The bocaccio quota this year is 100 metric tons.

Rockfish are an even more important staple for North Coast sportfishermen and so-called "party boats," so the new regulations will have a severe impact, Rick Powers, owner of the Bodega Bay Sportfishing Center, said earlier this week.

Powers said many recreational fishermen will try to eke out a living within 120 feet of shore, but he, like many others, including federal and state officials, fretted the pressure of more inshore fishing could affect fish stocks there.

Federal managers, alert to increased harvests of other fish, already are reducing quotas for some, Fort Bragg fisherman Dan Platt said.

Ancona also pointed out the dangers of jamming so many boats into a narrow strip of ocean, including some inexperienced with the dangers of fishing close to the beach.

But the offshore options are no more welcoming, he said.

"Fishing every day is a dangerous occupation, just the nature of the beast, and you're dealing with deep water and elements and boats that float. Now you just push them further and further offshore with less and less fish to catch, and so you're taking more chances all the time," he said.

He and others also criticize the data and the science used to assess fish stocks -- a process Ancona complained was based too heavily on computer models and spot data.

Andersen said she knows the argument all too well, but vehemently disagreed.

While fishermen may be seeing abundant boccacio, for example, that's because 1999 was a good year for their reproduction, she said.

Those same fish must still live twice as long to reproduce, so allowing them to be harvested would severely hamper their recovery, she said.

"We have the best science possible," Andersen said. "There are hundreds of biologists involved, diving and surveying the fish and looking at eggs. It's the best they have to go on, and it is very good."

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 521-5249 or