Angry Letter to the Sierra Club's President 4/5/02

Last week I received a hand-addressed solicitation for membership from your organization. I called Carl Pope's office to express my concern and reservations about joining the Sierra Club due to a lack of involvement and leadership with fishery issues, particularly the environmental disaster in the California Nearshore taking place within a few short miles of your headquarters. This led to a discussion of similar situations worldwide with Heather Paizis, who asked me to write you and provide information substantiating my claims.

The effects of commercial overfishing are resonating throughout the planet's marine ecosystems. The decline in squid populations off the East Coast is showing in emaciated fish caught during the summer. The decline in groundfish stocks has been shown to be connected to reduced plankton stocks which feed off their spawn in the Grand Banks leading to a decline in smaller feed/bait fish. Large declines in Alaskan fish stocks such as sablefish, turbot and Pollock correspond to population declines of up to 90% for seal and otter in addition to drastic reductions of bird populations.

In addition to depletion of the fisheries, bycatch, the discarded unwanted fish caught in the nets, amounts to additional millions of tons. The bycatch of king salmon in the Gulf of Alaska exceeds the number and poundage of sport-caught fish in the Western States and British Columbia!

Damage to the marine habitat by trawl nets will take hundreds of years to recover in coral areas and rocky habitat, such as off the California coast, is being permanently destroyed.

Causes of this overfishing are : 1) population increases; 2) governmental creation of fisheries such as roughy, in Australia, before realizing how long it takes the fish to reproduce; 3) years of governmental subsidization of the commercial fleets; 4) illegal catch; 5)poor enforcement of regulations; 6)management decisions made for political rather than scientific reasons.

Unfortunately, we are dealing with the majority of these problems off the California Coast. The California State Legislature recognized the problem and passed the Marine Life Management Act (MLMA). The legislation was so poorly written the Department of Fish and Game (DFG) had to ask for a one-year extension to implement its mandates because their "preferred alternatives" created so much public controversy.

The MLMA names squid, white bass and groundfish as areas requiring action. I can only address the groundfish issues but would encourage Sierra Club to research the others.

The overfishing of the California Nearshore, waters within 3 miles of the coastline, came about as a direct result of the development of the nearshore live fishery, which was created with help of the DFG. The gear used is a trap, similar to a lobster trap, and a stick, a small piece of plastic pipe with 5 baited hooks, a weight and float. The fish sold live bring premium market value.

The investment in equipment for the type of gear is extremely low. Many of the commercial live fishers operate out of a skiff and a pick-up. The apparatus are placed as close as five yards apart. The high efficiency of the gear allows areas to be fished out in a couple of days.

Many of the species in the California Nearshore have life-history characteristics that make them vulnerable to overfishing. These characteristics include long lives, late maturation and low reproductive capacity. The species involved are generally non-migratory.

The combination of efficient gear, reproductive characteristics and migration patterns have resulted in the serial depletion of the fishery along the majority of the California coastline south of Cape Mendocino.

The situation nears crisis after almost two years of public and closed DFG hearings, and Fish and Game Commission hearings, The Commission has responded by reducing sportfishing, which has been proven sustainable - or else there would be no fish left for the explosion of the live fish trade .

As over half the commercial catch goes unreported, by DFG's own admission, the net result has been no reduction in the commercial take. Because sport anglers only fished two months last year, they did not catch their allotment. Last year's uncaught sport fish allotment was then arbitrarily given to the commercial fishermen by DFG without consulting the Commission. The commercial fleet neared that allotment in early summer so DFG extended their season by three months. This resulted in a REPORTED commercial catch of at least 2 times the allotment.

To make matters worse, DFG is literally falling apart on the enforcement front. Last year 45 warden positions went unfilled largely due to low pay and because of the State's current financial condition the DFG is now under a hiring freeze while the six new catamarans brought into service over the last couple of years are stuck in harbor dealing with 911 security responsibilities.

By the time the provisions of the MLMA are put in place there won't be a fishery to talk about! The delay continues while the commercial fleet systematically destroys the ecosystem.

All of this is for the benefit of 100 commercial fishermen who will report $4 million in revenue. DFG estimates enforcement costs at $10 million.

The California Fish and Game Code, part of the State's constitution, mandates a satisfying recreational fishery be in existence before a commercial fishery is allowed to fish the excess. We invite the Sierra Club to join us in demanding the immediate cessation of commercial fin fishing in the California Nearshore until such excess can be demonstrated. This is the only enforceable action California can take which will substantially benefit the fishery.

We look forward to having a Sierra Club representative testify at the upcoming Fish and Game Commission hearing at Long Beach in early April.

If you have any questions or would like more information, please do not hesitate to call.


Richard Alves
Editor and Publisher
Fish Sniffer Online