San Francisco Chronicle
In an unprecedented move to protect endangered rockfish, a government council has ordered an emergency ban on bottom fishing off most of the California coast.
Fishermen said the action Thursday would devastate what remained of the West Coast's fishing communities, while restaurant owners and fishmongers said the ban would deprive consumers of their favorite fresh seafoods, including red snapper or rock cod, sand dabs, halibut and sole.
The ban ordered by the Pacific Fisheries Management Council, a regional agency that establishes fishing policies for the West Coast, encompasses much of the continental shelf from Cape Mendocino south to the Mexican border. The ban is expected to begin in early July. Today, the council is expected to order an extension of the fishing closure from Cape Mendocino northward to the Canadian border, beginning in 2003.
The new rules could be in place for decades because of the time it could take for some of the endangered rockfish species to recover. And while the ban is targeted at rockfish, it will affect fishing for other bottom-dwelling species because rockfish are often caught by accident.
The rulings will not affect shallow-water fisheries within 3 miles of the coast, an area regulated by the state. California agencies, however, are expected to impose new strictures on near-shore waters within a year.
Rockfish -- a term used to describe about 80 different bottom-dwelling food fishes -- are highly profitable to commercial fishermen, a favorite quarry of sport anglers and highly esteemed by seafood lovers. On the West Coast, they are the standard fish in fish and chips and are often sold as red snapper.
BAD TIMES FOR FISHERMEN
The decision could put hundreds of commercial fishermen out of business, damage the economies of coastal towns, restrict consumer availability of favorite varieties of fish and end recreational bottom fishing on thousands of square miles of ocean.
"It's a real mess," said Zeke Grader, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations. "It's possible it could affect most of the West Coast fishing fleet. The question now is where do we go from here? How do we get some relief to the people affected?"
Consumers also will feel the pinch, according to restaurant owners and fish wholesalers and retailers.
"You can take almost all the West Coast fish and just kiss it goodbye," said Ted Iijima, fish manager at the Berkeley Bowl's busy seafood counter.
"The vast majority of fish found on the Pacific Coast that are available year-round are brought up by nets," Iijima said. "We're talking about a $5 billion industry in California, and this will probably eliminate 50 percent of it."
Even with what he can import from other places, he said, "I'll probably have to get rid of half my crew. There will be less to sell. Prices will go up. People will not be able to buy it."
The rules will be enacted in two phases and enforced by the National Marine Fisheries Service.
Within a few weeks, the continental shelf from Cape Mendocino to the Mexican border will be closed to protect boccacio, a rockfish species with particularly depleted populations. Next year, the closure will extend north from Cape Mendocino to the Canadian border, generally encompassing the slope of the continental shelf.
POPULATIONS IN DECLINE
The draconian measures come as a result of new studies showing that rockfish populations are in worse shape than previously known. So far, biologists have assessed 25 bottom-dwelling fish species. Of those, nine were found to be overfished. And of those nine, seven were rockfish.
Even though some bottom fish species are plentiful -- including chilipepper and yellowtail rockfish, and also flatfish such as sand dabs, halibut and sole -- fishermen will not be able to take them, because threatened rockfish species are sometimes netted as "by catch."
At Seafood Suppliers at Pier 33 in San Francisco, owner Bill Dawson buys seafood from fishermen and sells it to the wholesalers who in turn sell to restaurants and markets. Dawson said the closure would have a grim effect on the flatfish market.
"You may not see sand dabs at Tadich's -- it could be that bad," he said, referring to the San Francisco restaurant that has been serving local seafood since the Gold Rush. "It looks to me like it would be devastating. All the restaurants in San Francisco and all the fish counters in the Bay Area sell local fish."
Richard Methot, a groundfish biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service, said the new regulations were largely driven by the provisions of the 1996 Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Recovery Act, which required managers to restore fish populations to 40 percent of their pre-commercial fishing levels.
"Before 1996, we were required to maintain (fish populations at existing levels)," said Methot. "There's a big difference between maintenance and recovery." Complete closures are necessary for recovery, Methot said, "because by-catch is the big problem. These species all mix together."
Because rockfish are slow to mature and reproduce sporadically, closures will most likely remain in place for a very long time, Methot said. Biologists estimate canary rockfish populations could take longer than 55 years to recover. Yelloweye rockfish, boccacio and cow cod could require 80 or 90 years.
Bitterness among both commercial and sport fishermen is running high over the closures. "I'm twisting my sheets every night over this," said Steve Fitz, a sand dab fishermen from Half Moon Bay who could be forced to stop fishing because of the closure. "We're sleepless. We don't know what we'll do."
But LB Boydstun, the California Department of Fish and Game representative to the council, said members had done their utmost to employ the best science available to assess stocks.
"This will devastate commercial and recreational fishing, but we had to recalculate (recommendations for some species) because of new data," he said. "It's too bad the finger pointing has started, but that's to be expected. The real issue now is to do whatever we can to help out the fishermen and communities that will be hurt."