Proposal for the exemption of spearfishing from recreational seasonal closure

July 2003

We propose the following change in the wording of the regulations regarding California's seasonal closure(s) for rockfish, lingcod, and scorpionfish:

"Under existing regulations, the sport fisheries for rockfish, lingcod and California scorpionfish will close in all waters and all depths south of 40º10' north latitude (near Cape Mendocino in Humboldt county) to all methods of take except for spearfishing."

We believe this proposal will satisfy any reasonable standard of fairness or sustainability.

Description of the fishery Most spearfishing occurs within 50 feet of the surface in the kelp forest environs. Fish Bulletin #176 describes spearfishing as a small and relatively low impact part of the recreational fishery. According to the bulletin, Northern and Central California spearfishing represented the least active of all modes of fishing, comprising about .8% of all recreational fishing days on the water between 1981and 1986. During this period, spearfishers caught an annual average of 40,000 fish, totaling 41,000 kilograms. Not including salmon, this represented approximately .6% of the total number of recreationally caught fish and .8% of the tonnage. Interestingly, this fraction of the recreational tonnage represented only .00056% of the commercial harvest, but we'll save that discussion for another day.

Spearfishers typically take pride that their sport is ecologically sound and includes a high degree of sportsmanship. They refer to it as being the most selective form of fishing since they visually assess fish before catching them rather than after. They also claim theirs is a clean fishery because no gear is left in the water such as occurs with hook and line fishing. Compared to other forms of fishing, there is a much smaller chance for gear, handling, and regulatory mortality and bycatch since fish can be identified and sized before take rather than after.

Problem Statement

Rockfish, lingcod, and cabezon are essential to spearfishers, especially in Central and Northern California where spearfishing is virtually shut down during the closures. The seasonal closure of these species disproportionately impacts spearfishing and the businesses supported by it. The problem is compounded by the fact that spearfishing opportunities are already limited to days when the ocean is calm and underwater visibility is good. While spearfishers are off the water, rod and reel fishing opportunities remain for other species such as striped bass, salmon, albacore, halibut, sturgeon and inland fish.


We believe a reasonable solution to the problem will be to exempt spearfishing from the closed season(s). This solution will allow spearfishing, and the businesses supported by it, to continue to exist without any appreciable impact on the allowable recreational harvest.

Precedence for this kind of exemption may be seen in some of the hunting regulations currently in effect. Refer to early or extended hunting seasons for archery and crossbows, muzzleloaders, or shotguns with slugs. There are also extended seasons for junior hunters. The justification for these exemptions is the low level of take that results from reduced gear efficiency or the lesser abilities of junior hunters.

Spearfishers may also be willing to consider some kind of reporting system during the exemption period so that an even better assessment of their impact may be made. This system could offer a considerable improvement over the reliance on MRFSS data however it should not be anticipated as a revenue source (beyond the cost of funding the program itself.)


Using some of the same reasoning that is behind the exemptions to closed hunting seasons, an exemption for spearfishing should also be considered taking into account the following:

1. Spearfishing's low impact on the resource and TAC.

2. The high selectivity of spearfishing. Virtually no bycatch or impact on any species of concern.

3. Spearfishing's disproportionate dependence on the resource.

4. Diving's inherent limitations with regard to depth and ocean conditions.

We also added some justification for the use of vessels. Here they are:

Proposal for the use of vessels during exempted period(s)

We have discussed the use of vessels during the exempted period and were surprised when they were disallowed during the closure in 2002. Vessels should be allowed for the following reasons:

1. Safety:

Spearfishers are faced with several safety issues. First is the problem of access to coves where diving takes place. Contrasted with scrambling down the bluffs risking injury, a vessel provides access that is safer, not to mention, more enjoyable.

Entry and/or exit from the ocean, particularly through the surf line, can be dangerous. This becomes even more significant on those common days when the ocean swell picks up as the day goes on. An easy beach entry in the morning may become a treacherous exit by afternoon. This danger is made worse by the potential for entanglement with a stringer of fish or dangling gear as the diver is being tumbled in the surf. There is more than one story of spearfishers actually becoming impaled on their spears while entering or exiting through surf.

Vessels provide storage for speared fish. This is preferable to requiring swim-in divers to carry fish on their persons for other predators to see and/or smell (divers never forget that they are not at the top of the food chain while in the ocean).

Vessels provide a platform that may be essential for resting a cramped leg or for a diver who has become injured or ill. They are also an excellent place to carry refreshments, consume them, and store other items. The swim-in diver does not have the ability to carry items that provide for a safer experience like signaling devices, cell phones, two way radios, or first aid supplies. Vessels can also provide aid to a diver or boater in distress.

Resource concerns:

Vessels provide a way for a diver to venture beyond the immediate point of entry. This would allow fishing effort to be spread out along more of the coastline, not concentrating it in the immediate area of the few entry points divers have access to. When considering the very limited number of access points on the North and Central coast, this makes sense. It's important that divers disperse effort and avoid concentrating it on a few local areas. This also allows those who do choose to swim in to enjoy a site that has more abundant reef fish populations. This is equally important for the non-consumptive user.

Convenience and Enjoyment:

For some, diving from a vessel is simply more fun and convenient than swimming in for abalone, spearfishing, and sightseeing. There is the simple aesthetic value of a diver being able to sit comfortably without having to worry about cramps, surf, or other inconveniences. It should be remembered that spearfishing is enjoyed by people of different ages and/or athletic ability and that this exemption is about increasing the opportunities for as many as possible from the dive community.

Many south coast divers travel by vessel to offshore islands. It would be unrealistic, and potentially dangerous, to expect them to beach their boats just so they could swim out from shore in obedience to an unnecessary regulation.


The DFG's Enforcement Division expressed concern that allowing vessels during an exemption period might cause an enforcement problem. The contention was that divers could access deeper water stocks with a rod and reel and claim they caught them while diving. This could easily be remedied, perhaps by prohibiting the possession of rockfish on a boat that has any traditional hook and line fishing gear on board (during the closure).

Apart from south coast divers, there are probably relatively few who use motorized vessels. Many divers use kayaks as a dive platform just for the sheer enjoyment and exercise, in addition to other advantages, that they offer,. Kayak diving is a strenuous sport that is not for everyone. Those few who do engage in it also tend to be among the most conservationist minded individuals of the general fishing public as may be evidenced by their outstanding numbers at F&G Commission meetings. There are strong feelings in the diving community that divers should be allowed the use of vessels. For some, the kayaking or boating are as much a part of the experience as the diving is.