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Offshore Wars

Fishermen and environmentalists go head to head


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Buck Everingham, Bait Hauler

Photography by Justin L’Heureux

The fate of Buck EVERINGHAM’S live-bait business struck fear in the hearts of local sport and recreational fishermen when marine life conservationists threatened to cut off his fishing territories. San Diego’s sport and recreational fishing — statewide, an industry estimated to be worth more than $900 billion to the California economy — relies heavily on Everingham’s supply of tiny fish. In fact, nearly every sport fisherman who goes out of San Diego, Mission Bay, and Dana Point looks to Buck for bait.

“Buck Everingham is the best bait hauler in the world. We all share that opinion in the industry,” says Bob Fletcher, former president of the Sportfishing Association of California. “Without Buck’s ability to provide live bait, recreational fishing would die. It would be disastrous.”
But that’s what might happen when the California Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) goes into effect this year.

“Without Buck Everingham’s ability to provide live bait, recreational fishing would die,” says Bob Fletcher, former president of the Sportfishing Association of California. “It would be disastrous.”

 The act was passed in 1999, but initial attempts at implementation failed. Then the state ran into funding woes. Deciding how to divvy up and protect a local resource, between factions that are polarized to begin with, seemed an insurmountable task. But after years of intense discussions, the wrangling over our shoreline ended last December when the California State Fish and Game Commission cast their vote to adopt a network of 36 marine protected areas (MPAs) in Southern California.

Included in the protected areas is the spot off Torrey Pines State Beach where Everingham catches most of the bait he sells to anglers. “Ninety percent of the 2.5-mile area along the coast of Torrey Pines will be closed,” he says. “They’re taking the most important, productive part of where we can work.”

He’s still permitted to take bait for the sport fleet off Imperial Beach and up in Oceanside, but he says the distance is going to make it difficult to maintain the kind of reliability his customers have come to depend on. “Our boats aren’t fast enough to make it up to Oceanside,” Everingham says. “If we can’t find what we need on the Silver Strand, it will be tough on the sport fishermen.”

Tug of War

The task of setting aside marine reserves became a bitter back-and-forth drama between fishing rights advocates and environmentalists. Conservationists say establishing MPAs is in fact good for fishing. It’s expected that the marine reserves, along with good management practices, will restore Southern California fisheries to their historic levels by creating nurseries where brood stocks grow larger and produce healthier, more abundant eggs. The reserves will eventually overflow and repopulate areas that surround the protected sites. Proponents say MPAs will also support coastal tourism by acting as underwater parks that lure visitors interested in scuba diving, photography, and other below-water activities.

In San Diego, the Fish and Game Commission’s decision means the total marine reserve area will increase by six percent and will include places like Swami’s, south La Jolla and Cabrillo. The new reserves are expected to go into effect by mid-2011 and extend three miles from shore. That territory covers species such as sea urchin, lobster, spot prawns, and of course, live bait like sardines and anchovies. (Sportfishing for species like swordfish and tuna takes place beyond the three-mile zone.)

While the MPAs are being heralded as an important victory by environmentalists, commercial and recreational fishermen say they’re left feeling bruised and somewhat victimized. Fishing rights advocates say the process was rife with secret meetings, turf battles and outright conflicts of interest. A lawsuit filed in late January by the United Anglers of Southern California, Coastside Fishing Club and Bob Fletcher points to a lack of authority for adopting the regulations and argues there are a number of violations of the California Environmental Quality Act in the new regulations.

It is the second lawsuit involving the MLPA. In May 2010, Fletcher sued the MLPA Blue Ribbon Task Force and Science Advisory Team for failing to respond to a Public Records Act. By October, a judge had ruled in his favor.
MPA opponents gripe that $20 million in funding to implement the MLPA came from five charitable foundations that push an environmental agenda, rather than from public state funding.

“That $20 million allowed us to move forward,” says Ken Wiseman, executive director for the MLPA Initiative. “We were able to make all voices heard. It was a very healthy and robust process.”

Catalina Offshore owner Dave Rudie says it’s not that commercial or recreational fishermen were against the MPAs, but rather, they presented their own version of the plan. “The fishermen were really willing to give up a lot, but the environmentalists weren’t giving up anything, and the proc­ess really alienated a lot of fishermen,” says Rudie.

“Where we had all of La Jolla to fish, now we’re getting pushed into a smaller spot. Kayak fishermen and boaters? That is not a good mix. There’s potential conflict when you have boats running around looking for fish in a much more compacted area,” he says. “It’s just not going to be a pretty situation.”

“Change is hard,” admits Kaitlin Gaff­ney, ecosystem protection director for Ocean Conservancy. “If you’ve got a place where you’ve historically fished, why would you want to give it up?” But Gaffney is solid on her position. “Science shows it’s good for the ocean, and in the long term, it’s good for fisheries.”

Isabelle Côté, a professor at Simon Fraser University, has studied MPAs worldwide and says the early results are often unpredictable.
“Some areas start producing extremely rapidly, and you get spillover effect quickly. Other MPAs don’t produce that quickly. Even though we have a lot of data, we can’t easily predict which MPAs will produce and which won’t. What we can say is that after 15 years, you are guaranteed a high biomass on the inside of the protected area, but there is a lot of variation early on,” she says. “How well it works in the first five years does not predict how well it will do later on. You can’t give up on it if it does poorly. It has to be a long-term commitment.”

Preparing for the Future

Jim Sammons of La Jolla Kayak Fishing says he saw this coming and is refocusing his business on day fishing, in part because of safety concerns.

“Where we had all of La Jolla to fish, now we’re getting pushed into a smaller spot. Kayak fishermen and boaters? That is not a good mix. There’s potential conflict when you have boats running around looking for fish in a much more compacted area,” he says. “It’s just not going to be a pretty situation.”

Judd Brown, owner of The Fishery and seafood wholesaler Pacific Shellfish, also has doubts but offers a few ideas.

“I’m not sure the MPAs are the best method,” he says. “Swordfish, white sea bass, halibut, shark, lobster, and squid all have open seasons for fishing. If they would manage the fisheries based on migratory patterns, spawning times, and/or a quota system, it would be a lot easier to manage, less expensive to implement, and far easier to enforce versus establishing these tiny areas [as reserves]”.

There are only seven large patrol boats stationed along the 1,100 miles of California coastline, with jurisdiction up to 200 miles offshore. There’s no additional funding for MPA enforcement.

Brown’s not the only one to point to concerns over enforcement. Bob Farrell of the Fish & Game Wardens Association says there are only seven large patrol boats stationed along the 1,100 miles of California coastline, with jurisdiction up to 200 miles offshore. He says there’s no additional funding for MPA enforcement.

“If you do that math, it’s quite a chunk of water,” Farrell says.

Part of the law allows for adaptive management for the MPAs and for reassessment in five years, but whether MPA productivity can be assessed that quickly is unclear. Response times vary depending on species, water temperature, and other variables. Rockfish, for example, can take 10 years to reach maturity and reproductive age, while lobsters may benefit more quickly.

“The ocean is extraordinarily complex, and it takes time,” says Gaffney. “Plus, there are natural changes in the system. How much is due to the MPA, to an El Niño or to a particularly cold winter? The important thing is that the five-year mark is a check-in. It’s not a ‘reset the clock.’ For California to see real changes, it’s going to be more like 10 to 15 years.”

But make no mistake, fishermen will want a voice in the five-year reassessment. Stay tuned. 

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