Since the mid-1970s, Bodega Bay fisherman Josh Churchman has earned a livelihood from long lines rigged with scores of tin-plated steel hooks. He'd catch chilipepper and other rockfish species that are offered by Bay Area restaurants under the name of Pacific red snapper.
Churchman's 17-year-old son, Kyle, has fished with him on and off for the past decade. But their deepwater-fishing livelihood is in jeopardy, because new federal regulations are forcing small hook-and-line enterprises out of business.
"We were serious players. My little 24-foot boat has caught over a million and a half pounds of fish. We fed a lot of people," Churchman said. "Fishermen are dropping like flies. There's not nearly as many players as before."
He contends the new rules favor large trawlers and recreational party boats that take sport anglers for hire -- at the expense of hundreds of small-scale operators.
Trawlers can fish year-round. Churchman is limited to a four-month season for rockfish and a catch quota that is less than 6 percent of his yearly catch in the late 1990s. Although charter boats for sport anglers also have a four- month season, their federal allotment can surpass a trawler's yearly quota.
"What are we leaving for future generations? A vast and valuable resource owned by a few factory ships," said Churchman, who along with two other Bodega Bay fishers -- Edward Paasch, and Todd Beeson -- has sued the Commerce Department to overturn its fish harvest limits.
Churchman concedes that Pacific rockfish, like the troubled salmon fishery, are overfished. The damage can be seen at Bodega Bay and other harbors, where boat yards are closing and fishing boats are being sold cheap.
Government regulators insist there is no reason for alarm. Plans are being drafted to rebuild depleted rockfish species and a pilot program has begun to place observers on some fishing vessels.
Conservationists say that West Coast fisheries are collapsing -- similar to what happened in the 1990s to Georges Banks off New England. They complain that regulators have failed to protect and rebuild West Coast fish stocks.
Churchman's favorite fishing spot, Cordell Banks (20 miles west, off Point Reyes), is one of the world's most abundant fishing grounds because of its diversity of species and numbers. It's also part of a national marine sanctuary.
"Some days I see four- or five hundred whales. Blues, fin whales, minke whales and a lot of humpback," he said. 'I've seen pods of orcas, dolphins and some of the rare birds."
These waters were also once teeming with "groundfish" species such as boccacio, canary, cow cod, golden eye and lingcod -- which have experienced steep declines in the past 30 years. Nine of the 17 managed groundfish species have been placed on the federal list of overfished species. More than 60 groundfish species have not been assessed.
Groundfish include rockfish, plus bottom-dwellers such as flounder and sole.
Nearly all of the rockfish species that have been studied are in long-term decline, even those such as boccacio and widow, whose numbers accounted for the biggest catches in the past. They are being fished faster than they can reproduce.
Conservationists say that too many boats equipped with sonar fish-finding gear and strong nylon nets are hunting down large schools of rockfish, which include vulnerable species. They also say that bottom trawlers harm marine habitat and compromise the productivity and resilience of ecosystems, which further degrades the health of fish populations.
Trawlers are permitted to drag huge nets on rollers across the ocean bottom,
even in some areas of the Cordell Banks and Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary -- catching every creature in their path while scouring the bottom. But trawlers and other fishermen must throw back their "bycatch" -- tons of dead fish accidentally caught while fishing for other species.
"We've demonstrated that we can catch the last one, if we put our minds to it. There are few places on the California coast where people haven't picked it and pilfered it," Churchman said. "But I wouldn't put a red flag up, I'd put an orange one up. It's not too late to save it."
He insists that trawlers and recreational boats have been given a "government sanctioned monopoly" on rockfish.
"Everybody's being squeezed to help rebuild the fishery. But we're being eliminated," he said. "The guys with the lobbyists were the party boats and the trawl, but not the hook-and-line guys. We didn't take anyone out to lunch."
His lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, contends that the National Marine Fisheries Service is discriminating against hook-and-line operators.
"It doesn't make sense," said his attorney, Jack Seidman of Bolinas. "The hook-and-line fisherman causes less negative environmental impact than the trawler."
Conservationists, who have won recent lawsuits against the federal government involving its management of Pacific rockfish, say that regulators are promoting short-term economic gains at the expense of the fishery. They describe a classic example of the fox guarding the chicken coop.
The Pacific Fishery Management Council, whose members are appointed by the Commerce secretary from the recommendations of governors of California, Oregon,
Idaho and Washington, is composed mainly of representatives from the commercial fishing industry, including trawlers and sport anglers. No one from an environmental group has ever sat on the council's 15-person board.
The council's actions are reviewed by the National Marines Fisheries Service. The state of California, which is responsible for managing fisheries within three miles of shore, also works closely with federal regulators.
"If the fishery was managed in a more sustainable way, ultimately everyone from the environment to the fishermen would benefit," said Drew Caputo, a lawyer for the the Natural Resources Defense Council, a nonprofit lobbying and litigation group.
Caputo claims that although the federal agency's own data shows that rockfish populations are crashing, the agency is continuing to manage the resource in much the same way it always has.
In the past 15 months, the NRDC has filed four lawsuits against the Commerce Department to prod it into taking more aggressive steps to protect depleted species and marine habitat.
"The sooner these populations are rebuilt, the better for industry. It's better to take the medicine sooner. The longer they delay, the harsher the impact is going to be," Caputo said. "The agency has admitted there are too many boats chasing too few fish. They need to deal with that. But that has obvious economic and political impacts . .. All the data indicates that dramatic action is needed. They need to think about significantly new ways to manage the fishery."
Up until the last decade, the nation's marine resources were viewed as virtually limitless. Commercial fishing vessels had unlimited access to coastal waters. But there were concerns that foreign fleets were poaching in U. S. waters. In 1976, Congress passed the Magnuson Act, which created the National Marine Fisheries Service. NMFS' primary mandate was to subsidize a stronger U.S. fishing fleet. Conservation was viewed as secondary.
By the mid-1990s it became clear that some of the nation's fisheries were in trouble. In 1994, NMFS closed significant portions of the Georges Banks fishing grounds off New England in response to the collapse of the cod fishery.
Currently, two thirds of its groundfish species have been identified as overfished.
In 1996, the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery and Conservation Act was reauthorized with new measures that require NMFS and its regional fishery management councils to avoid overfishing, minimize bycatch, protect fish habitat, and rebuild overfished species.
Karen Garrison, a co-director of the oceans program for the Natural Resources Defense Council, contends that federal regulators ignore the effects of fishing on ecosystems and leave loopholes that allow the continued depletion of sought-after species.
"NMFS must review the management council's decisions, but all too often they have rubber-stamped the council's decisions," she said. "You wouldn't find the timber industry put in charge of how much they can cut . . . The oceans and the creatures that live there belong to the people as a whole. The government, not the fishing industry, should be making decisions on how to sustain those resources . . . Most of the time we are fishing blind. We don't have as much information that we need to manage well, but we allow fishing anyway."
Sven Fougner, an assistant regional administrator for sustainable fisheries for the National Marine Fisheries Service, said that "some of the relatively minor species (of groundfish) are being declared overfished, and measures are being put in place to protect them. The rebuilding process is slow because the species are long lived and it takes them a while to reproduce. We are doing the best we can, given the tools that we have and the money that we have and the limitations that are expressed by fishermen and processors. Some fishermen say it's too restrictive. Others say it's not restrictive enough."
He said the Pacific Fishery Management Council is "trying to fine tune the management approaches . . . There's always the concern that one of these relatively minor species or species that haven't been studied will be found to be overfished -- curtailing the opportunities to catch healthy stocks."
Trawlers "catch a lot of everything," Fougner said, "but the new gear restrictions imposed have reduced the number of rockfish they catch. We don't want trawling in rocky areas." Trawlers are forbidden to bring to port any rockfish caught on the continental shelf with "rockhoppers" -- large tirelike rollers that allow access to the most rocky habitat. But that gear is still allowed on rocky areas of the continental slope, the steep slope to the ocean floor where rockfish are also caught.
Fougner said that trawlers that scour the bottom can break off rock and coral formations and harm benthic worms and sponges. But he insisted that those boats and on-shore fish processors need to operate year-round to survive.
He said the agency is developing environmental impact studies of fish habitat, and considering a "buy-back program" to remove some boats from the fleet.
"You can go to any fisherman in the world and you're going to hear him complain that the other guy is getting more fish than I am," said Rod Moore, executive director of the West Coast Seafood Processors Association.
"I think it's a reasonably fair process," said Moore, who also chairs the Pacific Fishery Management Council's groundfish advisory panel. "There are times when I disagree with what the council does. But in general, given the constraints that it has to operate and the resources it has, the council is doing a good job."
He said that about 95 percent of fish delivered to West Coast processors is caught by trawlers, which aren't as hazardous to the ocean bottom as one might think.
"Anything that scrapes along the bottom is going to have some impact. The question is, Just because you're disturbing something, is it causing a problem?" Moore said. "The trawl fleet, with recent gear restrictions, is completely out of rocky areas with pinnacles and reef areas where you're going to be flattening out coral. The degree of impact on sandy bottoms is still an open question. Just because your stirring up the bottom, does that cause a problem for fish?"
The NRDC's Garrison said the best way to rebuild fish stocks is to close large areas to fishing.
"Modern technology is devastatingly effective," she said. "The nets are very powerful. Sonar fish-finding equipment is extremely accurate. Our capacity to catch fish has far outstripped our capacity to conserve them. One way to guard against that problem is to create marine reserves where fishing is prohibited."
Far less than one percent of U.S. ocean waters enjoy full protection. But the track record for marine reserves, such as ones at Cape Canaveral, Fla. and the Caribbean island of St. Lucia, is impressive. Studies show that marine reserves, compared to nearby fished areas, have bigger fish, more fish and greater biodiversity.
"Fishermen aren't big fans of closed areas," Garrison said. "But the real question is how are you going to bring these fish back?"
Rising before dawn, Churchman drives from his home in Bolinas to Bodega Harbor. He takes his boat, Palo, about 25 miles out to sea on the Continental shelf, where the water is roughly 600 feet deep. Here, rockfish feed on small, shrimplike krill, lantern fish, squid, and other rockfish. He will spend a full day fishing and return by dark.
A dense school of Pacific rockfish may show up on his sonar "fishfinder" as a combination of red, orange, yellow and blue speckles and blobs near the ocean bottom.
He hangs one nylon line off the bow, another off the stern. Each line has hooks every 18 inches or so. Pulling in the gear, he faces the thorny issue of discard.
"This is what makes it complicated: they want you to catch one kind (of rockfish species), but not another," he said. "But they all swim together. So what are you going to do? You never have a day when you don't discard."
Most rockfish have a swim bladder, which allows them to stay in deep water. When caught and brought quickly to the surface, the fish's bladder explodes.
Trawlers' nets rake in crab, eels, skates, sharks and vulnerable rockfish species. Fishermen use shovels to get rid of the bycatch.
Regulators "have cut back on the catches, but that often means that rather than lowering the mortality level, it may mean that more fish are thrown over the side," the NRDC's Garrison said. "Since discarded fish don't get counted, the official landing numbers only tell half the story.
"We have greatly underestimated how many fish get killed because we only have observers on a very small percentage of the boats. You need an observer on the boat to keep track of bycatch and that's something the industry has fought for manay years."
Fougner argues that discarding bycatch is a sound regulatory tool.
"If you set catch limits but allow people to bring in anything above the catch levels, there is no disincentive to going for one last fish or trawl," he said. "We certainly don't want to encourage people to increase their bycatch. We hope to minimize bycatch."
He said that some fishermen claim that they can target healthy species by carefully selecting their fishing times and places.
Last August, U.S. Magistrate Judge James Larson ruled that the National Marine Fisheries Service was not properly accounting for bycatch mortality or discard when it set its annual harvest levels.
"A fish is just as dead if you throw it overboard or take it to market and sell it," said the NRDC's Caputo. "The agency has to take full account of fishing mortality -- fish that are thrown overboard and fish that are landed and sold at market."
Larson ruled that NMFS had failed to notify the public and consider public input in setting its harvest levels. He also held that the agency failed to create a rebuilding plan for groundfish species and to conduct a sufficient environmental analysis for bycatch, as required by the Magnuson-Stevens Act.
Tim Ports, a wholesale distributor at Fresh Fish Co. in San Francisco, buys Pacific rockfish from hook-and-line operators.
"Hook-and-line hook is a vastly superior product," he said. "These fish are generally caught one at a time, handled one at a time, iced and sold the day after they're caught. When you take 500 pounds in a net, the ones at the bottom take a beating."
From the 70s through the 90s, Churchman's fishing season for rockfish on the continental slope was year-round. In the 1990s, he caught about 70,000 pounds of rockfish a year. In 2000, when new studies indicated that some rockfish species were overfished, trawlers and hook-and-line enterprises were given smaller quotas. Churchman's quota of rockfish this year is 4,000 pounds. He used to average more than 1,000 lbs. a day. Now, he can catch his annual quota in four days.
"I can't get my boat painted or pay the rent ($125 a month) on my dock for the yearly allocation of fish," Churchman said. "They ought to put a gravestone on my boat. It's not going to last much longer. How about giving me something to live on.