OC Fishermen Are Out to Sea

Thanks to overregulation in the name of conservation, these hard-working men face extinction

OC Fishermen Are Out to Sea

Steering through the shiny, silver-gray waters of Balboa Harbor, an expanse of blue skies, sails and multimillion-dollar homes behind him, Ivar Southern pulls his boat to the dock, the final stretch of calm before hitting the chaotic bustle of land. He steps out in rubber boots and waders, his sandy brown hair disheveled and nose slightly sunburned. His fishing mate, a shepherd-Lab mix named Dory, jumps onto the wood planks, tail wagging as she roams nearby.

It's noon on a Saturday, the first weekend of June, and Marcos Voyatzil from the Dory Fishing Fleet Market has been awaiting their arrival. With sunglasses, scruffy facial hair and a long ponytail that hangs below his black baseball cap, he peers into the boat's live well to examine the day's catch. Hundreds of rust-colored rock crabs the size of dessert plates wiggle in the deep metal chamber, their shells clacking against one another like castanets.

"I wish I had more for you, Marcos," says Southern, who'd been out at sea since 5 that morning. He scoops up the crabs with a plastic bucket and transfers them into a heavy-duty trash can; it'll be lugged by the handles onto a scale.

Ivar Southern, a lobster fisherman in Laguna Beach, grabbing what he can
Kenneth M. Ruggiano
Ivar Southern, a lobster fisherman in Laguna Beach, grabbing what he can
Don Brockman, owner of Davey’s Locker in Newport Beach
Kenneth M. Ruggiano
Don Brockman, owner of Davey’s Locker in Newport Beach

"Nah, it's good," says Voyatzil, filling out a form on a clipboard. A woman helps transport the crustaceans to the century-old market a couple of miles up the Newport Beach coast, where they'll be plopped into plastic bags and sold by the pound to swarms of seafood-hungry customers the next morning. Voyatzil understands Southern's predicament. It's been this way for months with all the local fishermen he works with. "You can't catch enough anymore," he says, matter-of-factly. "We're just gonna have to get a lot less."

Southern signs some paperwork and is handed a small wad of cash. He sits alone on the ledge of his 24-foot-long silver vessel Linda Faye, named after his mother. Dory curls up on the boat's port bench and falls asleep.

"Before, things were simple," says the 37-year-old fisherman, his speech slow and heavy. "Now it's one big mess. I've lost the ability to achieve any more on the coast. I don't know how much longer I can do this."

For Southern and other local family fishermen who've built their lives and livelihoods on the ocean, the proverbial choppy sea lies ahead. Since Jan. 1, prime Orange County fishing areas have been barred indefinitely by Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), state-imposed no-fishing zones aimed at restoring underwater ecosystems that some ecologists believe have been fished out. Environmentalists have hailed the ambitious effort, authorized by the 1999 Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) and implemented by the California Fish and Game Commission, as a major milestone in marine conservation. But many in the Southern California fishing community believe it's the wrong move, one that unfairly targets their industry at the expense of others and is having disastrous consequences in local economies from food to tourism and beyond. They're not going down without a fight: The tug-of-war between fishermen and conservationists has recently spiraled into a full-fledged political maelstrom, as angler groups in Southern California have filed an appeal in San Diego Superior Court in hope of overturning the regulations and reclaiming an American tradition on what they see as public turf.

But as the new season begins for many fishermen, there's already a sense of doom. Some of the displaced have been forced to venture into outside territories, alter their business models, or turn in their licenses and lines to look for work elsewhere.

"It's a ghost town," says Rodger Healy, the president of the California Lobster and Trap Fishermen's Association, describing the Laguna Beach coastline where he's long fished for California spiny lobsters. Eleven Southern California sportfishing boats have gone under this year, according to Wendy Tochihara, national sales manager for fishing-tackle manufacturer Izorline International. Healy calls old-school fishermen a "dying breed."

He lost about 65 percent of his fishing grounds due to the closures, which amounts to about 65 percent of his income. "They basically took away the heart of our livelihood," he says. "What will happen? That's the million-dollar question. We don't know."

* * *

Long before the days of spray tans and luxury yachts, the backbone of Newport Beach's economy was sportfishing. After World War II, troops who settled in Orange County sought comfort in a relaxing pastime that put fresh food on their dinner tables. Newport Harbor was home to nearly 30 landings—Port Orange, King's, McFadden's—where fishermen from preteens to post-middle-agers loaded onto creaky boat decks and stood shoulder-to-shoulder with their fishing poles, swapping stories while waiting for a halibut or barracuda to bite.

As the commercial fishing industry grew over the next decades, marine scientists began to closely monitor what was happening under the sea. By the early 1990s, they found that California's ocean environment was in trouble. Several fish stocks were dwindling—Chinook salmon, steelhead and abalone were all branded on the state's endangered or threatened marine species list.

"In response to dwindling fisheries, we must adjust our use of them," explains Greg Helms, program manager of Pacific conservation for the Washington, D.C.-based Ocean Conservancy. "We needed to create a bank account and harvest the interest, an insurance policy to hedge against the mistakes we might make in ocean management, so that Californians can experience the ocean's abundance and natural splendor."

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