State slashes rockfish season; opening delayed until Aug. 1

April 29, 2004
By Carol Benfell

Regulators are cutting the heart out of this year's recreational rockfishing season, saying anglers caught more than 10 times the amount they were supposed to in 2003.

Anglers will still be able to stand on shore and reel in the popular, tasty rockfish, often called red snapper. But party boat skippers and those who like to fish from boats are out of luck until Aug. 1.

The season was scheduled to open Saturday for two months, then close for two months, reopening Sept. 1 for another two months. Instead, it will open Aug. 1 and close Oct. 31, eliminating the most popular summer fishing months.

Sam Lefkowitz of Cazadero fishes from shore and says the regulations won't affect him, but he has empathy for those who go out in little skiffs for a day of fishing.

"Look at Bodega Bay. Look at all the little boats people own. All they want is to catch rockfish within their range -- that's what's been lost," Lefkowitz said. "It hurts them bad, and there's a lot of them."

State Department of Fish and Game officials are still struggling to understand what triggered last year's massive harvest, but acknowledge their own complicated bag limits may be partly to blame.

There are 55 species of slow-growing, long-lived rockfish. Seven of the species have been overfished so badly that it will take decades for the populations to recover, Fish and Game officials say.

In 2003, the department set a limit of 10 near-shore rockfish a day for anglers and an annual limit of 44 tons for the sportfishery.

But recreational fishermen caught a whopping 494 tons during the year, and Fish and Game didn't realize it until after the catch was in.

That's almost four times the 121 tons landed in 2002. In comparison, anglers caught 162 tons in 2001 and 77 tons in 2000.

Now the department hopes to make up for lost time by closing the season during the months when most people fish.

"There's generally a huge fishing effort and a huge amount of take in May, June and July," said Deb Wilson-Vandenberg, a research manager at state Fish and Game. "If we're going to make a change, we want to do it at a time of year it will actually have an impact."

The department is still trying to find out why so many rockfish were caught last year. Since no one is patrolling North Coast beaches and counting fish in creels, Fish and Game officials make estimates of the season's catch through interviews with fishermen, random counts of catches, and random telephone surveys several times a year.

Fishermen argue the estimate of 494 tons for 2003 is just plain wrong.

"They are wildly overestimating the number of fish caught," said Jim Martin, a Fort Bragg director of the national Recreational Fishing Alliance, a nonprofit organization. "It's a data point that doesn't make sense."

"Last year, they cut down the number of hooks you could use and cut the season in half. Yet according to their figures, the catch went up," Martin said.

The department is also questioning the figure and has compared it to actual rockfish numbers gathered on other projects, but the results weren't conclusive, Wilson-Vandenberg said.

"While we couldn't come up with something that showed this tremendous increase, we couldn't come up with something that looked like an error in the estimates," she said.

Researchers did find that tons of rockfish had been caught illegally, when the season was closed; that legal anglers made more trips than in previous years and their catches were higher; and that confusing rockfish bag limits contributed to the greater catch.

In 2003, the department established a complicated set of bag limits and sublimits for the 55 different kinds of rockfish.

The final regulation amounted to a brain-teaser: Anglers could catch 10 near-shore rockfish a day, except no more than two each of five species that regulators feared were in danger of being overfished.

The regulation backfired, according to a staff memorandum. Some fishermen thought the limit was 10 near-shore rockfish plus two of each of the five species. Others tossed back members of the five species after reaching the sublimit, but the fish died anyway as a result of hooking and handling.

Some people didn't know what they were catching because they couldn't identify the species.

In the last analysis, the sublimits may have caused more rockfish deaths, not fewer, the memorandum said.

"This unintended regulatory effect not only resulted in the discard of dead nearshore rockfish, but it also may have led to increased overall rockfish mortality," the memorandum said.

The state Fish and Game Commission has since voted to end the subbag limit on the five species. "We took it off the books because it did not work well," said Wilson-Vandenburg.

The memorandum recommending the May-to-August closure foresaw no economic impact on coastal towns, but Bodega Bay-area motels, grocery stores and bait shops typically see fewer tourist dollars when the sportfishing season is closed.

Recreational angling pumped $9 million and 118 jobs into towns along the Northern California coast in 1999, the last year for which figures are available.

You can reach staff writer Carol Benfell at 521-5259 or