Federal regulators order cuts in fishing catch off Oregon, Washington and California coasts

(11-05) 10:30 PST SACRAMENTO (AP) -- Federal fishery authorities have ordered sharp cuts in the catching of Pacific Ocean perch, bocaccio and ling cod next year off the California, Oregon and Washington coasts, saying the three species have been declining because of overfishing.

The reduction ordered this week by the Pacific Fishery Management Council, which could total as much as 60 percent, affects both commercial and sport fishing and is all but certain to result in multimillion-dollar losses for the fishing industry.

``This is the worst round of cuts we've had,'' said Dan Hunt, 40, a commercial fisherman from Half Moon Bay. ``I've heard a lot of talk of getting out of the business. Next year it could be worse,'' he added.

Expecting the cuts, Gov. Gray Davis urged the federal government to declare a disaster because of the economic impact on the fishing industry. ``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.

Federal scientists say it could take as many as six decades to restore some fish populations, and that the economic outlook for commercial fishing is grim.

``The West Coast groundfish fishery is in crisis,'' conclude National Marine Fisheries Service scientists in a research plan drafted this week. ``The fishery is overcapitalized and at least several stocks have been depleted by a combination of natural and man-made factors, pushing their allowable catches down to levels that cannot economically sustain present fishery harvest levels.''

Even the fishermen agree there are too many boats seeking too few fish. ``We could remove a third of the fleet and still catch what we're allowed to catch,'' said Joe Easley, administrator of the Oregon Trawling Commission, who estimates that 220 trawl boats catch West Coast groundfish.

As a way to meet the coming cutbacks, trawlers have offered to stop fishing close to shore with ``roller gear,'' big tires attached to their nets, that allow them to sweep through rocky areas where their nets would otherwise get snagged.

Hunt equates some of the latest declines in rockfish to the popularity of such gear in the last couple of decades. ``Now what we're proposing is stepping back to the old days,'' Hunt said. By avoiding rock piles and reefs, trawlers will in effect create sanctuaries for the big, spiny, long-lived rockfish, he said.

``Everybody knows this is a broken system,'' said Hunt, who has been fishing for 25 years. ``As fishermen we're just trying to keep working.''