Ruling to Cut Rockfish Catches Threatens State's Commercial Fishermen Small-scale operations will be hardest hit by agency's decision

Saturday, November 6, 1999
Glen Martin, Chronicle Staff Writer

A federal ruling to drastically cut the commercial catch of rockfish off the Pacific Coast should help rebuild depleted stocks, but it will cause widespread pain in California's already devastated commercial fishing industry, both fishermen and environmentalists say.

And the people who will be hurt most, say fisheries advocates, are those who can least afford the pain- small-scale enterprises that are already straining to make ends meet because of past restrictions.

The decision this week by the Pacific Fishery Management Council specified deep cuts in the commercial catch quotas in California, Oregon and Washington for several species of "ground fish," including ling cod and boccacio. Sport angling will also be affected.

Fisheries experts estimate the total rockfish catch should be reduced by about 50 percent.

The decision was widely anticipated because Pacific rockfish have been in decline for years, with overfishingwidely acknowledged as the prime cause.

Anticipating the likely economic dislocation in coastal towns, Governor Gray Davis has asked the federalgovernment to declare a disaster.

"Thousands of fishermen and a like number of fish plant workers in California will be affected by the impending regulations," Davis wrote last week to U.S. Commerce Secretary William Daley. The Department of Commerce oversees federal commercial fishing regulations.

The regulations are expected to hit small, hook-and-line operations the hardest, because their options for alternative fishing are limited.

Truly prosperous fishing operations are likely to be few and far between under the new rules. Federal experts say it could take some species 60 years to recover, and that general prospects for the commercial fishing industry are grim.

The Pacific fishing industry is already reeling from previous rockfish quota restrictions and drastically reduced salmon seasons.

Karen Garrison of the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental lobbying and litigation group, said the move was necessary because rockfish stocks have been diminished during the past decade.

"The most heartening part of the ruling is restrictions on large rollers on trawl nets," said Garrison. Rollers are disc-like devices attached to trawl nets that allow the nets to scrape right along the bottom.

"Smaller rollers made it difficult to fish rocky areas, making the sea bottom a de facto preserve," said Garrison. "The big rollers were letting the nets take all the fish." But Garrison said there are also problems with the ruling, most notably the lack of provisions for government observers on fishing boats to make sure the new restrictions are observed.

Small hook-and-line operations will be hit hard, said Barbara Stickel, who was reached by cell phone as she and her husband, Tom, fished for chili pepper rockfish seven miles south of the Farallon Islands.

"Basically, this cuts the quotas for our most valuable fish by more than half," said Stickel.

In September, she said, her quota was 2,000 pounds for the most marketable species, such as red rockfish and boccacio. There was also a 14,000-pound quota for less valuable species, like widow rockfish and chili peppers.

"Now, we've been cut to 5,000 pounds for widow rockfish and chili peppers, and about 500 pounds for the reds."

Stickel said the decision blatantly favors big boats over small ones. "It's a clear sign the government wants to manage a small fleet of big boats rather than the other way around, because they think it will be easier," she said.

But Josh Nowlis, senior conservation scientist for the Center for Marine conservation in San Francisco, said he believed the council made a good faith effort to deal fairly with the rockfish decline.

"The fact is that we should have taken decisive action years ago then we would have had more leeway now," he said.