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Setting the Record Straight

January 28, 1998
California's fishing industry provides valued food for the public;

Commercial fishing is strictly regulated - and regulations do work

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.

Hidden Agendas

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 public.

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.

California fisheries

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 grounds.

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 reserve boundaries.

The export of larvae from reserves to augment regional fisheries has theoretical potential but is almost entirely unproven.

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)

California Seafood Council, PO Box 91540,		Santa Barbara, CA 93190 +1-805-569-8050