June 14, 2002
By PAT BRENNAN The Orange County Register
Sportfishing, a symbol of Southern California ocean culture, next week faces one of the biggest threats in its long history: the chance that ocean- bottom fishing may be banned in one of the state's most productive marine-life zones, possibly for decades.
The stunning proposal, which could deeply wound the $5 billion recreational-fishing industry along the California coast, will be considered by the Pacific Fishery Management Council beginning Tuesday.
It is part of a desperate attempt to save long-lived, slow-growing rockfish whose numbers, scientists say, are plummeting.
"We don't want to push the stock to the level where it's going to end up being listed under the Endangered Species Act," said LB Boydstun of the state Department of Fish and Game, who sits on the fisheries council . "That is not an acceptable option to the public."
The focus in Southern California is bocaccio, a deep-water fish served in some restaurants as "red snapper." According to scientists, the population of bocaccio is less than 5 percent of its prefishing level. Ling cod are also being considered for protection, as are two other rockfish species that live along the northern and central coasts, the yelloweye and canary.
They are among nine rockfish species -- part of a group known as ground fish -- that government biologists have declared overfished. In 2000, the National Marine Fisheries Service declared a "ground fish disaster."
The Washington and Oregon coasts also may face restrictions, regulators say, though probably less-stringent than California's.
Closure of commercial fishing for rockfish in California will be considered as well.
SPORTFISHING WOULD TAKE BRUNT
But in Orange County, the true threat is to the thriving sportfishing market.
"It would put a lot of guys out of business," said Don Brockman, an owner of Davey's Locker Sport Fishing and Whale Watching in Newport Beach. "Fishermen have done everything they've been asked to do, but this is ludicrous."
Specialty shops in Dana Point and Newport Beach schedule daily fishing trips to the continental shelf. Bait and tackle shops, as well as restaurants that cater to recreational fishermen, rely on the industry, as do fuel docks and other businesses.
The ban would likely affect fishing on the ocean bottom at depths of 60 to 900 feet, Boydstun said.
Bocaccio live as long as 60 years, reproducing slowly. Biologists estimate it could take about 97 years to return the fish to the level required under the Sustainable Fisheries Act -- 40 percent of its pre-fishing level.
The fishery council could reduce the allowable catch for the species, now at 100 tons, to anywhere from zero to 6 tons per year. As the stocks begin recovering, fishing limits would be gradually raised, but it could be several decades before restrictions are again loose enough to meet demand, regulators say.
The newest estimate says the catch should be less than 6 tons a year in 2003 in order to put the fish on the road to recovery, said Steve Ralston, a research fishery biologist at the National Marine Fisheries Service in Santa Cruz.
The Pacific Fishery Management Council begins its four-day meeting in Foster City, near San Francisco, on Tuesday, and by Friday is expected to put forward recommendations to save the rockfish.
With some scientists supporting a ban on rockfish fishing, and sportfishing advocates pushing for lesser controls, it is uncertain just what the council will do.
The 14 members will begin by assuming a worst-case scenario: a ban on sportfishing on the bottom at depths of 60 to 900 feet, Boydstun said. The focus would be on rocky areas where rockfish live, so sandy areas could still possibly be fished, as could areas above the bottom.
Other possibilities short of a total ban will be considered, and limited rockfishing in some areas may be allowed.
RIPPLE EFFECT IS A CONCERN
Local sportfishing operations say a ban could cripple their industry. Many other desirable fish species are found on the rocky bottom, and fishermen fear putting these areas off-limits would, in effect, prevent them from going after other species.
Simply throwing back bocaccio caught in deep water doesn't work because their swim bladders burst from the change in pressure, killing them.
But banning or restricting rockfish catches could turn the public against sportfishing, fishermen fear. Public perception -- that fishing could be hurting the environment -- could do as much harm as a rockfish ban, Brockman said, potentially causing the number of customers to decline.
Brockman and other sport fishermen contend that the science supporting a rockfish ban is weak or nonexistent. And they feel that existing, seasonal restrictions are having a beneficial effect.
They say it's a good year for rockfish in Southern California: Catches are up, not down.
"I have a whole fleet of boats out there telling me they haven't seen this many rockfish in 20 years," said Bob Fletcher, president of the Sport Fishing Association of California.
Scientists, however, say that while the fishermen's reports are probably true, the higher numbers of bocaccio represent the bare beginning of resurgence for a species that has plummeted to dangerously low levels.
The fish being caught are small and young, but bocaccio take perhaps seven years to reach sexual maturity and reproduce, scientists who specialize in rockfish say.
And reproductive success is very low -- the likely evolutionary reason for the long lifespan of rockfish, said Milton Love, an associate research biologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara's Marine Science Institute.
The sudden spike in young fish, Love said, is "only based on one year of successful survivorship, in 1999. There hadn't been one 20 years before, and there hasn't been a good one since."
SCIENTISTS SURE OF THEIR NUMBERS
The fish will need many years of good survivorship to recover, he said.
"That's what most people don't understand," he said.
Ralston said that despite the assertions of fishermen, he believes scientific estimates of low bocaccio numbers are sound and based on a variety of data collected in Southern California. These include reports on catch from the sportfishermen themselves, surveys of eggs and larvae, scientific sampling of fish populations and reports from coastal power plants, such as the San Onofre nuclear plant, that track the kinds of fish pulled into their cooling systems.
The estimates, made by Alec McCall at National Marine Fisheries in Santa Cruz, were reviewed by a panel of experts, including Ralston, and fishing industry representatives.
Once the fisheries council makes its recommendation, a series of public hearings will follow. Then, in September, the council is expected to make a final decision.
After another public-comment period, the National Marine Fisheries Service would have to approve the council's plan before it could go into effect. It would be effective for the 2003 fishing season.
Love, who visits rockfish personally by taking trips in small submarines, says he sympathizes with the plight of fishermen, many of whom could lose their livelihoods if a ban takes effect.
But he said his observations match what the scientists are finding.
"Places where I single-handedly killed 1,000 bocaccios in Santa Monica Bay, fishing in 1960 -- you go to the same reefs, and there are very few large fish at all," he said. "They've just been pummeled."
Copyright 2002 The Orange County Register