Overfishing Could Bring Tougher Rules

Feds may close Pacific shelf

Alameda County Newspapers
Douglas Fischer

Federal fish managers are preparing brutal new restrictions -- possibly shutting down the entire continental shelf from Mexico to Canada to fishing next year -- as they realize efforts to prevent overfishing off the coast of the Pacific Ocean have failed.

The unprecedented cutbacks, to be implemented in September and effective in 2003, are certain to affect virtually every fishery off the coast -- from salmon to halibut to shrimp to even the Dover sole locals like to hook for dinner, federal managers say.

At worst -- a scenario that many on Wednesday said was quite likely -- the new rules could force recreational and commercial fishers off the water completely, stopping cold an industry that pumps more than $5.5 billion into California's economy.

"We basically could be telling a million people or more that they can't go fishing in the ocean," said Ralph Brown, an Oregon trawl fisher and a member of the Pacific Fisheries Management Council, the federal panel overseeing ocean fishing. "It's that serious."

The magnitude of the decision had anglers, commercial fishers, environmentalists, state and federal biologists grasping for words Wednesday. New harvest levels -- and the Draconian measures necessary to meet them -- were first unveiled Tuesday during a Pacific Fisheries Council subcommittee teleconference.

"If they shut down the shelf, boy, the commercial folks -- it's hard to imagine they could be in deeper trouble," said John DeVore, the council's ground-fish management coordinator. "The levels allowable under even the most optimistic conditions might not even be enough to accommodate the by-catch" of the various fisheries on the continental shelf.

Even worse is the rebuilding period necessary to restore the fishery's health: 156 years for one species, yellow-eye rockfish, assuming alli fishing stops next year, according to federal estimates. Boccacio, another hard-hit species, needs 90 years.

The continental shelf gradually slopes from the coast to a depth of about 600 feet, before dropping precipitously to what is called the continental slope. The bulk of California's commercial and recreational fisheries --including salmon, halibut, sole, squid, shrimp -- come from the Pacific shelf.

"This is scary stuff," said Pete Leipzig, executive director of the Fisherman's Marketing Association, which represents commercial harvesters in California, Oregon and Washington. "People like myself are struggling with how to get creative -- how we can structure some kind of fishing off the shelf, on the continental slope, to sustain some fishing."

The concern centers on three types of rockfish, a long-lived, slow-growing fin fish once common in offshore reefs and sold as pacific red snapper: boccacio, yellow-eye and canary.

Overfishing has dropped populations so precipitously that fish wardens fret that even accidental by-catch -- fish inadvertently caught while trolling or fishing for other species such as shrimp and halibut -- will push the rockfish into extinction.

This year boccacio, for instance, has an "allowable by-catch" of 100 tons for the entire West Coast. That will shrink to between zero and 14 tons next year, DeVore said. Yellow-eye is even worse, with Oregon, Washington and California splitting no more than 1,200 pounds, or about 300 fish, next year.

For perspective, the International Pacific Halibut Commission conducts an annual survey to assess the health of its stocks. That survey alone, Brown said, will accidentally hook all 300 of those fish, effectively closing every other fishery as no more accidental catches would be allowed.

"If scientists decide to stop doing surveys, we shut down the fisheries," he said. "Because we don't have the information." Problems won't stop there, either, other experts warned. Fishing restrictions on the continental shelf will send both commercial and recreational boats into the deeper waters of the continental slope or the shallow, state-controlled near-shore waters.

The latter is already under considerable distress, with more than 150 recreational anglers protesting at a state hearing Tuesday night that current harvest limits, particularly for commercial boats, are unsustainable.

Deputy Director Dirk Brazil of the California Department of Fish and Game cautioned that the federal discussions are still too preliminary to start predicting outcomes. "This obviously complicates things. There's no way to sugarcoat that," he said. "But how it's going to manifest itself -- there's no way to say right now."

But privately, others within the department called the situation "extreme," one that could force dramatic change to near-shore regulations that have been nearly three years in the making.

Marine sport fishing, according to department estimates, kicks $5 billion into California's coastal communities and employs 150,000 people. The state's commercial harvest -- the fifth largest in the nation -- is worth about $550 million with the industry keeping 17,000 employed.

"People are going to play the blame game big time on this one," said DeVore. "It got to the point where the game was over 10 years ago, but we just realized it today."

Federal law requires the council to act to protect the species if the data stand up over the summer. Congress or the courts could step in, but there's an example of what happens if politics trumps science, said Mark

Powell, acting director of fish conservation for the nonprofit Ocean Conservancy.

In the 1980s scientists predicted the Grand Bank of Canada's Newfoundland coast was being gravely overfished. Regulators fudged and delayed, but by 1992 the decision was made for them: Cod populations crashed, and 30,000 people were thrown out of work, the largest mass layoff ever in Canada.

DeVore said the situation in the Pacific is worse. Cod at least is starting to come back 10 years later. Rockfish will need a century.

"You have a complete cessation of the fishery here, and no one alive today is going to see it come back," he said. "This is one of the most extreme management challenges I'm aware of in fisheries management."