Laguna resident Bill Shedd with a 51-pound white seabass he caught about a quarter mile off of Woods Cove in May.
By Ted Reckas, Laguna Beach Independent
December 25, 2009
Bill Shedd paddled his kayak along the reefs just off of Woods Cove, where he lives and fishes 30 days per year. Nearby in a small boat a father was fishing with his three-year-old daughter and eightyear old son.
“They were giggling and laughing and catching mackerel,” said Shedd, “I told them they are going to close fishing in Laguna and the man said, ‘What? Why would they want to do that? I had no idea that was happening.’”
The process by which new marine protection laws are written is in the late stages, and though there are five proposals under consideration by the state Department of Fish and Game, the one favored by a review panel that seems most likely to become law would close most of Laguna Beach’s coastline to fishing.
Efforts to increase marine protections are driven largely by researchers, whose findings demonstrate many species in the world’s oceans are being over fished. Unchecked fishing can devastate populations, as in the case of abalone, where the black, white and pink species have collapsed, and significant restrictions remain on the red abalone, the only species still fished.
The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch, which assigns sustainability ratings to commercially fished species, says on its homepage, “Despite our best efforts, the global catch of wild fish leveled off over 20 years ago and 70 percent of the world’s fisheries are being harvested at capacity or are in decline.”
The National Marine Fisheries Service, in its 2008 annual report to Congress, says at least 46 species are overfished, while 280 stocks have undefined overfishing thresholds, which means there is no way to know how many of those are overfished.
Landings of popular fish – a main indicator of population levels – such as white seabass and halibut in Southern California peaked decades ago and have never reached the same levels, according to DFG reports. The annual catch of white seabass peaked at 3.5 million pounds in 1959, and checked in at only a quarter of that, or 900,000 pounds, in 2000. Halibut, perhaps a more sought after fish, peaked at 4.7 million pounds in 1919 and fell off a cliff, spiking up over 2 million only once in the late 1940s, then hovering between a quarter and 1.5 million pounds ever since.
When the Laguna Beach City Council asked the state for a citywide fishing ban, then council member Elizabeth Pearson, crystallized the sentiments of some who are too frustrated to look at the science, saying, “I don’t know that we’re over fished. I don’t know that we need replenishment. There’s no science in front of me to tell me that. But I do know I have seen some disgusting things happening at Shaw’s Cove over the last 20 years. I’ve seen people coming with spears and taking little starfish. And that is the reason I’m coming at it from the angle of preventing abuse. I think that’s where a lot are coming from. There’s been abuse after abuse after abuse. We keep educating and giving people tickets and putting people on staff and empowering the lifeguards and we can’t seem to stop it.”
Therein lies the rub. Scientific arguments aside, recreational fishermen have been labeled as one of the main culprits in the degradation of marine ecosystems, something that frustrates fishermen like Shedd and Bryan Menne, a Laguna Beach resident who has been spear fishing here for over 30 years and sees himself as a steward of the ocean. Menne primarily hunts for halibut and only shoots fish 26 inches or larger, even though the legal requirement is only 22 inches, saying he wants to give them a chance to mature. He takes about one or two per month during halibut season. His biggest ever was a 42-inch, 31-pound fish he caught in 1992. He caught four halibut this year; the largest was 9.5 pounds.
While reserve proponents claim the local waters are overfished, Menne says, "what ocean are you swimming in? I can go and see all the reef fish I want any time,” adding, “Halibut takes more time because you have to hunt for them. That’s the beauty of it. Hunt for it and only take what you eat.”
The halibut fishery illustrates the complexity at work in marine ecosystems; it’s actually several fisheries, with sub-species and various methods of fishing. The Environmental Defense Fund, which publishes sustainability and health information on fisheries, gives Atlantic halibut an “eco-worst” rating, saying, “Atlantic halibut are so depleted from overfishing, the species is off-limits to commercial fishing in U.S. waters.”
At the same time Pacific halibut, a different species caught off Alaska and Canada, gets an “eco-best” rating because it comes from a well-managed fishery that uses the hook and line method, which has relatively little environmental impact. California halibut, a third species, gets a moderate sustainability rating from Seafood Watch when caught with hook and line or bottom trawl, and the worst rating when caught with a set gill net.
Hook and line has low rates of bycatch, referring to catch besides the target fish. For every 1,000 pounds of California halibut caught by bottom trawl, 700 pounds of other fish are caught unintentionally, most of which are thrown back often injured or dead, according to Seafood Watch. The 70 percent bycatch is considered moderate, and only gets a critical rating if it is over 100 percent and regularly includes “species of special concern” like dolphins, seals, other marine mammals or sea birds, according to Seafood Watch criteria. This is the case with set gillnets, which gives that fishery the critical rating.
By comparison, recreational spear fishing done responsibly has a vastly lower impact: there is no exhaust or oil leaks from an engine, there is no habitat damage from dragging a trawl across the sea floor, and there is little or no bycatch, as the speafisherman swims through the water and literally hand picks the animal he wants to consume.
Shedd, president of Irvine-based fishing gear maker AFTCO and chairman of the Hubbs SeaWorld Research Institute, says that sport fishermen are not at fault for the decline in white seabass landings, insisting that landings are lower because there are more regulations now than in the past.
White seabass researcher Larry Allen, of Cal State Northridge, and a member of the Science Advisory Team guiding the Department of Fish and Game’s Marine Life Protection Act proposals, said sea bass catch hit a peak in 1959 when there were fewer restrictions and fishermen were having a free for all, gill netting in the spawning grounds.
While commercial gill netters harvested at will, recreational catch of white seabass flat lined to around 1,000 pounds per year for 30 years, until the nets were outlawed in California by Proposition 132 in 1994. Subsequently, recreational landings jumped to well over 10,000 fish per year in the late 1990’s, according to one DFG database, based on catch logs from commercial passenger fishing vessels.
The average weight of white seabass caught is up as well, from 8.4 pounds in 1990 to 18.5 pounds in 1999, according to the most recent Seafood Watch report.
While Seafood Watch gives white seabass a “best choice” sustainability rating, the report also admits no recent formal assessment of the population exists.
Shedd conceded that lack of data means he can no more claim a healthy white seabass fishery exists than an environmentalist can claim an unhealthy one.
Allen who recently read the yet unpublished, newest version Seafood Watch’s report as a member of their external peer review process, adds, “Probably between 80- 90 percent of the fishery stock of white seabass occurs in Mexico. Since Mexico stopped American vessel landings in 1982 we don’t have any idea what’s going on down there.”
Anecdotally, local fishermen point to the resurgence of the white seabass as a testament to the resilience of marine ecosystems.
If only it were that simple.
Managing fisheries around a single species overlooks its potential impact on the larger ecosystem, said Steve Murray, dean of Cal State Fullerton’s natural sciences and mathematics department and a member of the MLPA science advisory team. “What are fishery managers trying to achieve? How much can we take out of the system and hold the biomass at a somewhat constant sustainable level? If that amount you are taking out is 60-70 percent of the biomass that was there if it wasn’t fished, what does that mean to the rest of the ecosystem?”