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Fish Populations in Laguna

Bill Shedd, paddled his kayak along the reefs just off of Woods Cove, where he lives and fishes 30 days per year. He noticed a small boat with a man fishing with his three year old daughter and eight year 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 currently before the CA Department of Fish and Game for review, the one 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 who have shown the world’s oceans are being over fished. Unchecked fishing can be devastating, as in the case of abalone, where the black, white and pink species have collapsed, and significant restrictions remain on the only West Coast species still fished, the red abalone, according to the Department of Fish and Game (DFG).

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.”

According to the National Marine Fisheries Service 2008 annual report to congress, 251 stocks have defined overfishing thresholds, and 46 of them are actually 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 – like white seabass and halibut in Southern California peaked decades ago and have never reached the same levels. 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 4.7million pounds in 1919 and fell off a cliff, spiking up over 2 million only once in the late 1940’s, then hovering between a quarter and 1.5 million pounds ever since.

When the Laguna Beach city council asked the state for a city-wide 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: scientifically arguments aside, certain parties – in this case recreational fishermen – have been labeled as 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, but says, “I have a log I’ve kept. My fish count is pretty much the same over the years and I’ve been doing it for over 30 years. It’s part of my lifestyle. Biggest one I shot this year was 9.5 pounds. I saw 20 more like it that I just went down and said hello to.”

He goes on to say, “Mike Beanan and some others say there are no more fish out there. He told the council members this and they believed it. They are trying to tell me there’s no fish out there and I say, ‘what ocean are you swimming in?’ I can go and see all the reef fish I want any time. 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, a term that refers to catch of organisms other than the target fish. For every 1000 pounds of California Halibut caught by bottom trawl however, 700 pounds of other fish are caught unintentionally, most of which are thrown back often injured or dead according to Seafood Watch. The 70% bycatch is considered moderate, and only gets a critical rating if it is over 100% 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, spear fishing done responsibly, seems to have a vastly lower impact: there is no exhaust or oil leaks from an engine, as with any boat-based method, there is no habitat damage as with 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 AFTCO, a fishing gear manufacturer, and Chairman of the Hubbs SeaWorld Research Institute, is quick to point out that his constituency is not at fault for the decline in white seabass landings, saying it happened because there are size limits in place now that weren’t there in the past. While Larry Allen, a Cal State Northridge white seabass researcher and Science Advisory Team member for the Marine Life Protection Act, is not reiterating Shed’s position, he did say that the catch numbers were sky high in 1959 because there were less 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 around 1000 pounds per year for 30 years, until the nets were outlawed by CA proposition 132 in 1994. Subsequently, recreational landings jumped to well over 10,000 fish per year in the late 1990’s, according to the DFG’s logbook database, and the real numbers in recent years are probably much higher, according to Allen.

“There was a shift in the 1990’s – almost two-thirds of recreational angler trips are on private boats (as opposed to Commercial passenger Fishing Vessels, or CPFV’s). But you have to go to a different database to see that,” said Allen.

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 on white seabass. So recreational fishermen are catching more white seabass, and bigger white seabass.

While Seafood Watch gives white seabass a “best choice” sustainability rating however, the report also admits, “There has not been a formal stock assessment conducted for this species. A preliminary assessment was conducted in 1976, using fishery-dependent data collected from 1947-1973 (MacCall et al. 1976), but this information is too dated to apply toward the current status of the white seabass population.”

Shedd admitted that such a lack of data means he can claim a healthy White seabass fishery no more 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% 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.”

Disregarding the nuance in the numbers, local fishermen hold the resurgence of the white seabass up as a testament to the resilience of marine ecosystems.

If only it were that simple. There is a problem with a single species approach to fishery management, says, Steve Murray, Dean of Natural Sciences and Mathematics at Cal State Fullerton and member of the Science Advisor Team for the MLPA. “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% of the biomass that was there if it wasn’t fished, what does that mean to the rest of the ecosystem? If you’re going to take an ecosystem-based management approach, how does the current way we are managing fisheries, based on max sustainable yield model, intersect with that approach?”

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