Troubled Waters

Fishermen expect disaster from strict rockfish limits

By Stuart Leavenworth
Sacramento Bee Staff Writer
June 29, 2002

BODEGA BAY -- The party is over for many sport-fishing party boats. Commercial fishermen are reeling. So are California's coastal communities that depend on the ocean's bounty.

Tackle shops. Motel owners. Boat makers. Seafood processors. All are being rocked by severe restrictions on catches of rockfish -- long the mainstay of the West Coast's multibillion-dollar fishing industry.

In Bodega Bay, the "for sale" signs tell the story. Fishing boats are littered with them. Local restaurants still sell rockfish and chips, but their fillets come from Canada, not from local waters.

Nearly everyone in this misty Sonoma County town of 1,400 is bracing for a new era, including Rick Powers, owner of a party boat whose customers come mainly from Sacramento, Stockton and elsewhere in the Central Valley.

"I expect my business to be cut in half," said Powers, who has long taken anglers out to Cordell Banks, a prime rockfishing reef 20 miles from Bodega Bay. "There is a lot of insecurity in this business. You don't know what will happen from day to day."

Predicted for years, the virtual shutdown of California's rockfishing grounds is the latest saga of an overtaxed American fishery. In New England, Florida and other coastal regions, depleted fish stocks have triggered bitter disputes between sport anglers, commercial fishermen and federal fisheries agencies often accused of doing too little, too late.

In California, it is no different. Many blame the Pacific Fishery Management Council for putting off tough decisions until there was little choice but to shut down nearly all deepwater fishing for rockfish.

"There's been mismanagement of epic proportions," said Keith Olson, a fisherman from Fort Bragg who goes after rockfish, salmon and tuna using a long-line of baited hooks. He predicts his income will drop by a fourth because of the new regulations and other fishermen will be put out of business.

Meeting last week, the fishery council said it had little choice but to impose the restrictions, given new studies that concluded rockfish weren't reproducing as expected. By a 13-1 vote, the council effectively closed California's main rockfish waters and laid out plans for doing the same in Oregon and Washington by September.

The news hit fishing ports like a typhoon.

"It could put whole harbors out of business," said Bob Strickland, president of United Anglers of California, a group that represents the sport-fishing industry.

"The coastal communities will be hit hard," said Pete Leipzig, director of the Fishermen's Marketing Association, whose members include about 150 trawl boat owners on the West Coast. "Crescent City, Eureka, Fort Bragg, San Francisco, Moss Landing -- all those towns have major ports and fish processors."

Even fishermen who target plentiful fisheries, such as sole and sand dabs, will be hurt, said Leipzig, because the new regulations restrict any fishing that results in bycatch of rockfish.

"I have a half-million-dollar boat that will become worthless," said Steve Fitz, who owns a commercial sand dab trawler in Half Moon Bay.

Made up of 83 individual species, rockfish live in the crags of the Pacific Ocean's continental shelf, where their bugged-out eyes, spiky fins and kaleidoscope of colors help them blend in with the scenery. Known to consumers as Pacific snapper, they have long been popular with anglers and commercial fishermen, partly because they are easy to catch and are generally plentiful year-round.

In the 1970s, however, these bottom-dwelling fish faced a new type of predator. Hoping to ward off foreign fleets, the federal government offered tax breaks and low-interest loans to commercial fishermen. The fishermen, in turn, purchased hundreds of trawl boats that scoop up fish by rolling funnel-shaped nets along the continental shelf.

Strapped for cash, federal regulators now acknowledge they didn't adequately monitor the increased fishing pressure on rockfish, not just from trawlers, but from party boats and other vessels. To top it off, repeated El Niño events warmed up the Pacific in recent decades, hurting the survival of young rockfish, which need cold water to thrive.

By the early 1980s, commercial catches of rockfish started their roller-coaster plunge. First they dropped from 24 million pounds to about 700,000 pounds. Then they bounced back before crashing again in the early 1990s.

One boat captain who has ridden this wave is Powers, the party boat owner from Bodega Bay. Several times a week, Powers takes 20 to 40 customers out to the open ocean where, for $60 each, they try to pull rockfish, ling cod, salmon or other fish out of the sea.

It's a good life, Powers says. On a typical day, he pilots his boat, gabs on the radio and watches schools of porpoises race along the boat's bow. During a year, he says, up to 5,000 customers pay to go fishing -- more than he needs to pay off his $350,000, 65-foot boat, the New Sea Angler.

During a trip off Point Reyes on Wednesday, Powers grumbled about media coverage of the rockfish closures. "People think the entire coast has been shut down. It's not that way at all," he said. "There's still good fishing for salmon and (nearshore) rockfish. But you wouldn't know that from the headlines."

Even so, Powers acknowledges the rockfish restrictions will hammer his business. For the rest of the year, and possibly longer, he no longer will be able fish off of Cordell Banks. Instead, his rockfish trips must stay close to shore, where he will compete with hundreds of other vessels and charter boats.

On Wednesday, several customers drove from Sacramento and Stockton because of the pending rockfish ban, which takes effect Monday. "We saw that in the paper and we said, let's do it!" said Mark Miney, who traveled from Pollock Pines with Bob Hancey.

They weren't disappointed. Along with catching some big salmon, Miney and Hancey hauled in a few ling cod and rockfish. They also watched a whale spout in the foggy waters off Point Reyes. "I just love being out here," said Miney, a registered nurse who fishes once or twice a year. "I have a pretty intense job, so this is a nice way to get a break."

Over the next several years, the fish will get a break. Fisheries biologists said it could take decades to rebuild deepwater stocks of rockfish, and later this summer the state Fish and Game Commission is expected to enact new near-shore fishing rules, which could further restrict catches within 3 miles of shore.

Meanwhile, state and federal officials continue to debate a long-term fix. The fishing industry is urging Congress to approve a $50 million "buy-back" of trawler boats, arguing that the federal government helped create the basic problem: too many boats going after too few fish.