By Gwyneth Dickey, Monterey County Herald
December 7, 2009
Times are tough for Monterey fisherman Pete Bruno. For over a decade, tighter and tighter fishing regulations have slowed his charter fishing boat business to a trickle.
"First, they started lowering our catch limits," Bruno said. "Now, they restrict how deep we can fish."
He says many of his customers no longer want to pay to catch a few little fish, especially in these tough economic times. He's now offering whale-watching tours to pay the bills, but his business is faltering.
"It's devastating," said Bruno, whose grandfather came from Sicily and was a Monterey fisherman. "It's a livelihood taken away."
Fishermen, who already have a fear and loathing for regulation, may now face more. In June, President Barack Obama appointed a 24-member Interagency Ocean Policy Task Force to develop recommendations for a new national policy that aims to improve the management of U.S. waters.
Early next week, the task force will propose a process to help sustain ocean health in the face of a growing number of ocean uses, such as alternative energy, aquaculture, fisheries, oil and gas and recreation — a concept called marine spatial planning.
The goal "is to maximize the economic benefits we get from the oceans in a way that protects ecosystem health," said Aimee David, ocean conservation policy manager at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. "If we allow the marine environment to continue to degrade, we will see a loss of services we get from oceans."
Fishermen aren't sure what marine spatial planning will mean for the Monterey Bay, said Monterey Harbormaster Steve Scheiblauer. And they won't know until a specific proposal is put forth. But he hopes it will create some new fishing opportunities for California fisherman.
"There is a bit of trepidation about it because this poses yet another bunch of significant changes," Scheiblauer said. "There has been such change in the last 15 years or so, and we wince a bit wondering whether this is a new change to try to absorb."
Shrinking fishing territory
It has been a miserable 15 years for both sport and commercial fishermen.
Overfishing of rockfish in the 1980s and '90s led the federal government to establish Rockfish Conservation Areas, temporarily shutting down huge chunks of prime fishing territory on the West Coast so populations could recover. They have been closed for almost 10 years and they are likely to be closed for another 20, Scheiblauer said.
In 1999, the Marine Life Protection Act in California led to the roping off of more rich fishing territory on the Central Coast, restricting or banning fishing in many rocky habitat areas — each the size of the Peninsula — designating them marine protected areas.
With the salmon season closed for the second straight year because of low fish numbers, fishermen are hurting even more.
But fishermen are not to blame for the fish problems, Scheiblauer said.
"This was a management problem," he said. "The scientists and the managers had been telling them they could take more than they really could throughout the 1990s, and they took it."
Some scientific studies show California's fisheries are some of the best managed in the world, added Scheiblauer, who says that the fish are coming back and fishermen want to get back to fishing. He hopes the new marine policy will recognize this and reopen California fisheries for sustainable fishing.
Some area scientists disagree, however. Mark Carr, a marine biologist at Long Marine Lab in Santa Cruz, said fish still need protection for populations to fully recover. He said evidence shows that offshore fish species are returning, but not enough data exists to prove that inshore species, such as kelp greenling and California sheephead, have made a comeback.
"It's not to say they're not managed well," Carr said. "But you can't say that we're managing fisheries well if you don't know how many fish are out there."
Fishermen and scientists don't always agree how much additional data are needed, but they have the same goal — to get fishermen fishing again. In many cases, they're working together to count fish, allowing fishermen to lend their expertise and pick up some extra income.
"One of the most exciting parts is to include the fishermen in that effort," Carr said. "They have developed ways of fishing that allow you to take the fish, measure them, identify them and return them alive into the ocean."
Signs that regulations help
Carr studies the ecosystem effects of marine protected areas, a form of spatial planning. A new, wide-ranging marine spatial planning process could use tools, such as marine protected areas to restore and sustain ecosystem health.
Half of a protected area is open to some fishing, while the adjacent half is closed completely. In that way, scientists can compare fished areas with preserved areas and study the effects of fishing on ecosystems.
Marine Protected Areas "should enhance the rate at which the fisheries come back," Carr said, though he said he knows fishermen are going through a "terrible bottleneck" right now. "The fish populations have got to get back up to a size where these guys can fish them sustainably again."
A new study from Carr's lab shows that protected areas in Mexico successfully restocked surrounding fished areas with shellfish, and the science applies to most finfish as well.
"If you safeguard species in there, they become bigger and there are more of them," said Pete Raimondi, who conducted the research in the northern Gulf of California. "Bigger fish have more babies, so if we give the fish enough protection, we'll see enhanced larval numbers throughout the region and replenish depleted stocks."
But Scheiblauer says that while we're protecting our waters here, Californians are taking and eating fish from other nations that don't fish their waters sustainably.
"We're exporting our issues and exploiting the resources of other nations," he said. "We really missed the mark about careful utilization of the resources we have."
Already, he said, 85 percent of the fish Californians eat is brought in from other countries that may be fishing irresponsibly.
"At some point, the public is going to be surprised that there is so little local caught seafood here for them to eat on the West Coast," Scheiblauer said. "We are in a path of destroying the infrastructure of fishing."
Time is running out
Many fishermen are going out of business, selling their boats and moving out of town. That means less fishing in the Monterey Bay and the possible loss of a long fishing heritage.
"The way it is now, they're family-owned businesses," said Kathy Fosmark, former member of the Pacific Fisheries Management Council, a federal organization that manages federal fisheries in Washington, Idaho, Oregon and California. "Fishermen learn to fish from their fathers before them."
Fosmark, who fishes with her husband out of Moss Landing, fears the fishing culture will be further damaged if the new national policy implements more "catch shares," the practice of divvying up the ocean's harvestable fish into buyable, tradable shares.
She said wealthy stockholders, not fishermen, could buy up these shares and lease them to fishermen at a high cost, taking fishing out of the community.
"You cannot run a fishing business from a boardroom" because stockholders don't understand the nature of fishing, Fosmark said. The shares, she said, need to be kept in the fishing community.
As they face even more regulation, West Coast fishermen are fast becoming a dying breed. Young people can't afford to buy into the business, and won't if there's no money in it, while the older fishermen are retiring.
"What would Monterey be without its fishing culture and heritage?" Scheiblauer asked. "It would wipe out the sense of community, and all the efforts we've had to protect the culture of fishing."
But he doesn't think all hope is lost. New efforts, like off-the-boat fish sales are bringing fishing to the community and increasing public support for local family fishermen, Scheiblauer said.
"I do hope that with increased public and institutional awareness that we can preserve and actually grow the fishing infrastructure, with the emphasis on keeping it sustainable," Scheiblauer said.