Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Ventura County Star - Endangered: SB Channel's commercial fishermen

Endangered: SB Channel's commercial fishermen

The level of awareness and activism of those who live along the Santa Barbara Channel can only be commended. But with all we’ve done to protect the channel from the worst effects of offshore oil and gas development, to protect the islands through creation of the Channel Islands National Park, and the marine resources through establishment of the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary, there’s always something more to do. In this case, call it “tweaking” to help preserve the area’s maritime traditions.

Mike McCorkle has been a commercial fisherman in the channel for more than 50 years. He has two boats and a variety of permits that allow him to go after different fish at different times of the year, or in different years, when one species is more abundant. His longevity gives him great insight into fish and the characteristics of water. His face and hands reflect the rigors of his livelihood.

In my interview with McCorkle for the documentary “Sharing the Santa Barbara Channel,” he said there is now only about 15 percent of the number of fishermen who were here when he began fishing. McCorkle said that the average age of the commercial fishermen in this area is over 50. New fishing boats are prohibitively expensive for small-scale fishermen. McCorkle’s son has become a firefighter, not a fisherman, because he said he feels that being a fisherman is too political.

Why should you care? It’s only important if you like fresh, locally caught seafood and many people seem to. Supporting local fishermen is an obvious corollary to the “localvore” movement now promoting sale of locally grown organic fruits and vegetables at growers’ markets. If having fresh seafood is of importance to local residents, then residents must buy fresh, locally caught fish as directly as possible from the fishermen themselves.

Adaptation is critical on both sides. The fishermen I interviewed seem to understand that they have to eliminate middlemen in the seafood business. For example, in the course of our interview, Jerry Schneider, a crab fisherman based in Channel Islands Harbor, demonstrated what “retail” versus “wholesale” means in the sale of his crabs, by calling customers from his cell phone, one of whom arrived shortly thereafter to buy fresh crabs. Schneider spent the next day, a Saturday, selling crabs at Ventura Harbor.

To remain in business, a fisherman has to earn enough to keep his boat in good repair. He has to stay up-to-date on permits and restrictions to avoid fines. Like other self-employed individuals, a fisherman has to earn enough to finance his own healthcare insurance and retirement, or go without. And fishing is rigorous at best.

Curtis Hebert, another fisherman I interviewed, said he expects to be out in foul weather that’s when there are fewer fishermen competing in the few spots along the edges of the marine protected areas where they’re still allowed to fish. There is such an admirable toughness about this man. Does he not deserve to survive economically?

We have major problems that still need to be addressed. Pollution south of Point Conception is a persistent problem to fish stocks. Chemically toxic runoff from winter rain over metropolitan areas, with millions of cars dripping oil, and millions of lawns kept green with chemical fertilizers, ends up in the ocean. Until means of treating storm runoff can be found, the problem will continue, compounded by other even more complex problems, such as warming water temperatures and “acidification” of coastal water caused by higher atmospheric carbon dioxide.

But if you believe that the ocean is more than a sewer, you will help keep the faith on finding solutions by voting for people who support coastal protection and by supporting locally owned coastal businesses, including fishermen.

Fish is a healthy, low-fat source of protein and, worldwide, the demand for seafood continues to increase. Simultaneously, worldwide fish populations continue to decline. Though the long-term prospects for the availability of wild caught fish are not bright, in the short term, residents of Ventura and Santa Barbara counties must support local fishermen and their ability to bring fresh fish to market.

The maritime culture of the Santa Barbara Channel goes back at least 13,000 years, to the earliest evidence of human habitation in California. It would be a sad loss of tradition if it cannot continue.

— Janet Bridgers of Oxnard is president of Earth Alert.

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