Shore fishermen to sue over fish limits

New state rule curtailing rockfishing prompts protest from groups across North Coast

December 27, 2002


This New Year's Day, John Poluektov won't be going to a favorite fishing spot on the Sonoma Coast, climbing down a hill and perching on a rock with his rod and reel.

The Forestville man and other shore fishermen will be barred from their most plentiful near-shore catch -- rockfish, often called red snapper -- until the season opens in July. They'll have to be content with perch, halibut or croakers.

The Jan. 1 to June 30 closure is a first for shore fishermen. Always before, they've been able to fish year-round because their impact on fish populations was so minimal.

But times have changed. Rockfish populations are in such peril that everyone has to share the pain, said Marci Yaremko, whose marine regulatory unit of the state Fish and Game Department will be charged with enforcing the new laws.

"There is no longer a special break for fishing from the shore," Yaremko said. "Those opportunities can't be provided on a year-round basis."

It makes Poluektov mad. A growing number of other shore fishermen are banding together to file suit against the Department of Fish and Game to end the restrictions.

"Shore fishing should have a special place when they're allocating the resource. It shouldn't be bunched together with party boats. It's a tradition and it should be protected," Poluektov said.

Historically, only sport fishermen targeted rockfish, because their commercial per-pound value was so low. But in the mid-1980s, Asian restaurants and markets in urban California cities began demanding live rockfish, which is kept in tanks for selection by patrons.

The price for live rockfish outstripped even salmon, and commercial fishermen moved into the market.

Since then, seven species of rockfish have become overfished and in peril of extinction. Fishery biologists believe it will take decades for the slow-growing populations to rebuild.

To stave off further damage, the Pacific Fisheries Management Council, which regulates most rockfishing along the Pacific seaboard, issued a series of regulations to take effect Jan. 1.

The agency lowered the total number of rockfish that could be caught, from 662 metric tons in 2002 to 541 metric tons in 2003.

Based on historic catches, the council allocated 80 percent of that total for sports fishermen and 20 percent for commercial fishermen.

The council also refined how many of each rockfish species could be used to meet the commercial and recreational limits.

Then it asked recreational and commercial fishermen how they wanted to use that allocation.

Commercial fishermen argued for a longer season with lower limits on the number of fish they could catch per trip. They wanted to spread their income through as much of the year as they could.

So the management council gave commercial fishermen a 10-month season and slashed the catch from 1,200 pounds in a two-month period to 400 pounds in a two-month period, adjusting the limits up or down depending on the catch in the previous two months.

Party boat operators, speaking for sport fishermen, said they'd prefer a shorter season, with higher trip limits. Few people, they thought, would be willing to pay $65 to $75 a trip to catch two or three fish.

So the council allowed sport fishermen to keep the 10-fish daily bag limit. But the sport fishing season will be open only six months a year, between July 1 and Dec. 31.

Then, for the first time, regulators also applied the sport fishing closures to shore fishermen -- those who fish from beaches or cliffs, piers or jetties, or go out a short distance in small aluminum boats.

The action galvanized a group of fishermen who have generally been silent before.

"We never spoke out before. We never complained. We believed in the system and we never thought anyone would take our rights to fish away," said Robert Franko, president of the Coastside Fishing Club, a 2,700-member organization in El Granada, near Half Moon Bay.

"But the fishing community has had enough," Franko said. "There's something dramatically wrong when a child can't cast a rod from the shore, but a commercial vessel can fish from those waters."

The coalition, which includes the Coastside Fishing Club, United Anglers of Northern and Southern California, the Sportfishing Association of California and the Golden Gate Fisherman's Association, is preparing to go to court to fight the new rules.

The San Francisco law firm of Brobeck, Phleger & Harrison has agreed to take the case without charging a fee. The lawsuit, to be filed in mid-January when the rules are final, argues that the regulatory agencies don't have enough data on rockfish stocks to justify the restrictions.