Today overfishing is one of those buzzwords
guaranteed to stir public emotion. We're subjected repeatedly
to sensationalized accounts of man pillaging the ocean. But perhaps
such selective negativism - distorting the facts -
simply reflects a society that has forgotten how food is produced
- and by whom.
The year 1998 has been decreed "the
Year of the Ocean." It is a good idea to focus attention
on the state of the ocean and the importance of conserving its
resources for the future. But to date most accounts have leaned
heavily toward the sensational. For example, allegations about
the "serial depletion" of California's marine
resources far overstate reality. And allegations that California's
fishing industry is characterized by a "gold rush mentality"
are just plain wrong.
The men and women who spend their lives providing
seafood for consumers have an affinity for the sea and deep respect
for its resources. Many of the myriad regulations mandated on
commercial fishing in California were, in fact, requested by fishermen
to conserve their fisheries and protect other marine life.
As in other areas across the United States,
the commercial fishing industry in California today is under attack
from many different interest groups, each with a different hidden
agenda. The dichotomy is that each group also values the ocean.
Environmental groups exploit perceived and real ocean ills as
a fund-raising tool. Sportfishing spokesmen angle for a greater
turf allocation and exclusive rights to fish. Often conservation
arguments are thinly veiled efforts to displace commercial fishermen
that would in fact do nothing to protect marine resources. But
commercial fishermen are also part of the marine ecosystem: they
risk their lives on the ocean to provide essential food for the
In their new-found wave of concern over the
ocean, preservationists plead an emotional case for marine refuges,
hailing them as a cure for the the ocean's ills. As an
example, consider the recent proposal to establish "no
take" reserves around Channel Islands National Park.
The proponents, including Park Service senior scientist Gary Davis,
offer scant biological justification to support the need for and
effectiveness of no-take zones. Recent Park Service surveys in
easily accessible areas have measured a decline in certain residential
species, and these findings fuel emotional allegations that fisheries
are declining. In fact, overall statewide landings have increased
for the last four years. What has changed is the species mix,
substantially due to the influence of El Niño and California's
current warm-water oceanic cycle.
Nevertheless, in support of harvest refugia
a local editorial analogizes that it's illegal to kill
the wildlife at most of our national parks. However, the Congressional
Act creating Channel Islands National Park set the park boundary
at the waterline. The Act specifically maintained State of California
Department of Fish and Game jurisdiction over marine resources,
although it provided the National Park Service (NPS) with a one-mile
"easement" for enforcement purposes.
The federal Park Service has for decades angled
to increase its turf and control over state resources. Park Service
goals include increasing National Park lands 30 percent by the
year 2002 and achieving greater jurisdisdiction over park resources.
Either unwittingly or by design, the media played into a longstanding,
insidious conflict between state and federal agencies over control
of the waters surrounding the Channel Islands. The battle extends
beyond a turf war to opposing ideologies: the sustainable resources,
multiple-use mandate of California's Fish and Game Code
vs. the implicit "non-consumptive use" philosophy
of the NPS. It comes as no surprise, then, NPS scientist Gary
Davis, who was quoted extensively in news reports, advocates for
no-take zones, as well as for greater control of marine resources
for the Park. It is unfortunate that recent media accounts unfairly
malign the Department of Fish and Game and California's
strict fishery management policies.
A number of recent news reports allege that
California fisheries are in decline and offer as proof a comparison
of historic commercial landings with present catches. Such reports
also imply, if not stating outright, that the connection between
commercial fishing pressure and population declines is clear.
Where's the proof? This statement is simply wrong. Fishing
- both sport and commercial - has reduced
virgin abundance to be sure. But natural forces, regulations
and international economics have had an even greater effect, at
least on commercial catches.
Consider the example of sardines, which comprised
the vast majority of California commercial landings in the 1930's
and -40's. The fishery crashed by the early 1950's
and the blame fell on commercial fishermen. But after studying
core samples from an anaerobic trench off the southern California
coast, scientists now know that sardine populations fluctuate
cyclically, abundant in extended warm-water periods. In fact,
the decline of sardines along the west coast was precipitated
by a major oceanic shift to an extended period of below-normal
water temperatures. The sardine population would have declined
if there had been no fishing at all.
California's commercial landings took
another tumble in the early 1980's, when our tuna canning
industry moved to American Samoa and Puerto Rico to meet competition
from low-priced imported canned tuna. As a result, a tuna harvest
amounting to 384 million pounds and 38 percent of total landings
in 1980 no longer crossed the docks in California.
Explaining an oft-reported decline in white
seabass, prior to 1981 a California-based fleet fished in Mexican
waters, landing more than one million pounds of seabass a year.
Those landings disappeared due to border politics. Both seabass
and halibut are trans-boundary stocks whose major breeding grounds
are south of the border.
California production of white seabass, California
halibut and other nearshore species was further reduced by the
imposition of Proposition 132, a controversial 1990 ballot initiative
that prohibited gillnetting in state waters by the end of 1993.
The closure eliminated at least 91 percent of historic fishing
Of course California's commercial landings
have declined. The natural effect of strict regulations, coupled
with natural cycles and international politics, is reduced catches.
But as these examples show, reduced landings do not automatically
mean declining stocks.
Which "populations of popular species
have declined to alarming levels," as a recent editorial
states? Certainly not spiny lobster or rock crab; both healthy
and sustainable fisheries over the long term, thanks in part to
cooperation between fishermen and fishery regulators to enact
such laws as seasons, size limits and escape ports. The complete
omission of success stories in most media reports is troubling,
and particularly so because many healthy, sustainable fisheries
would be severely impacted - without just cause -
if no-take zones were established around the Channel Islands.
One recent media report points to California's
abalone fishery as a resource in trouble with nary a word about
"withering foot" disease, which has decimated countless
thousands of black, pink and green abalone over the last decade.
Nor is there mention of sea otters, whose comeback on the central
coast preempted California's most productive abalone grounds,
which produced an average two million pounds a year from the early
1900's to the 1960's. Clearly, using the abalone
decline as an example of the state of California's ocean
resources is incorrect.
Harvest Refugia: Facts and Fantasy
Editorials supporting the establishment of
no-take zones around the Channel Islands, while well-meaning,
labor under serious misperceptions. The first is that no-take
zones may actually enhance the long-term health of commercial
fishing outside reserve boundaries. This is an unproven theory.
Consider these excerpted findings from independent scientists
in California who have researched and published papers on the
merits of harvest refugia in fishery management.
Marine reserves tend to support denser
populations of resident species, but resident species are usually
habitat specific, reluctant to disperse. Thus the reserve does
not necessarily lead to significantly increased catches beyond
The export of larvae from reserves to
augment regional fisheries has theoretical potential but is almost
To design effective marine reserves,
studies are needed of the movement patterns and habitat requirements
of all life stages of all targeted species. Extensive
baseline studies are needed in proposed reserve areas before the
reserves are established, in order to properly quantify their
long-term effectiveness. Because improperly designed refuges
may endanger a fishery by providing a false sense of protection
(or by placing unwarranted limits and restrictions on harvesting
of renewable seafood resources), determining the effectiveness
of a refuge is of utmost importance. Yet most proponents of no-take
areas want to close the area first, then study it later. This
is putting the cart before the horse.
There is a perception that marine reserves
will provide effective protection with little need for detailed
knowledge of the species and without direct management of populations
within the reserve. This is wishful thinking. Management may
need to include a variety of options - including
allowing selective fishing. *
Commercial fishing regulations already include numerous area closures and gear prohibitions in and around the Channel Islands, as well as throughout coastal southern California. Ultimately, what real purpose would be served by closing an additional 23 percent, as proposed? Which species would truly benefit - and at what cost?
The Bottom Line
Commercial fishermen and women care about
the ocean; they have a vested interest in the long-term conservation
of marine resources. They cooperate with fishery managers to
establish meaningful regulations to conserve local fisheries.
In truth, California's commercial fishermen
fish by proxy for consumers who do not have the time, luxury or
interest to fish for themselves; this group includes more than
97 percent of all Californians. California consumers prefer fresh
local seafood when it is clearly identified. Indeed, seafood
is a desirable, healthful and nutritious food. And California's
seafood resources are renewable.
It is in everyone's collective interest to
protect coastal waters and ensure abundant healthy populations
of local fish species. That makes a lot more sense than trying
to create crises where they do not exist. Clearly, any restriction
of public access and enjoyment of the multiple uses offered by
the ocean off California, as elsewhere, should be based on sound
biological data and proven evidence that eliminating fishing would,
in fact, restore marine life. Instead of pointing the finger
at commercial fishermen, let's work together to meet the challenges
of the future.
*Sources for harvest refugia excerpts:
R.J. Rowley, Case Studies and Reviews, Marine reserves in fishery management, in Aquatic Conservation: Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems, Vol. 4 233-254 (1994)
Mark Carr & Daniel Reed, Conceptual Issues Relevant to Marine Harvest Refuges, in Can.J. Fish. Aquat. Sci., Vol. 50 (1993)