OC Fishermen Are Out to Sea

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

In 1999, a year before the U.S. Secretary of Commerce declared the West Coast groundfish fishery (fish that swim near the ocean floor) a "disaster," then-Governor Gray Davis signed into law the MLPA, designed to create a patchwork of so-called MPAs off the California Coast. These reserves—off-limits to fishermen—were to act as sanctuaries where fish could live longer, grow bigger, lay more eggs and repopulate the oceans. Similar zoning approaches have been used around the world from Malindi in Kenya to Goat Island Bay in New Zealand. In many cases, researchers have found evidence of a "spillover effect," when the fish stocks within an MPA are replenished and move into the nonprotected areas.

Five years later, Arnold Schwarzenegger's administration revived the law by dividing the state's 1,100-mile coast into five regions and rallying stakeholder groups to settle the size, location and details of the reserves. MPAs first swept through Northern and Central California. Biologists monitoring the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary reserve, put in place in 2003, documented a 70 percent increase in the biomass of kelp bass after five years.

Around 2009 in Southern California, the state's most populous region with the greatest diversity of ocean users, conservationists, fishermen, scientists, policymakers and water enthusiasts convened in a year-long series of contentious meetings to determine how to best preserve ocean ecosystems from Point Conception in Santa Barbara County to the Mexico border. The final approved MPA map was the one fishermen feared: On Jan. 1, 2012, 49 reserves went into effect, covering 354 square miles of state waters. In Orange County, that included roughly 7 miles of the cherished—and lucrative—Laguna Beach coastline, from Abalone Point in Irvine Cove to Goff Point at Treasure Island beach. From there, a state conservation area extends to Seacliff Drive at Table Rock beach.

Ray Hiemstra, associate director of Orange County Coastkeeper
Kenneth M. Ruggiano
Ray Hiemstra, associate director of Orange County Coastkeeper

Many fishermen complained the MLPA process was politically driven and flawed, claiming it relied on funding from environmental groups and conflicting science. Some say they were scapegoats for a problem spawned by pollution from storm-water runoff, sewage discharge pipes, herbicides, fertilizers and city waste.

"We were the easiest target," says Michael Thompson, co-owner of Newport Landing Sportfishing near the Balboa Pavilion, who was part of those meetings. "How are they gonna go to the sewer people and say, 'Stop dumping sewage into the ocean,' or, 'Hey, all you people, stop flushing your toilet and stop watering your lawn?' It's not gonna happen. So they just said, 'Oh, we're gonna blame these guys.'"

Some also believe the closures disregard years of conservation efforts by fishermen in California, which boasts one of the most regulated commercial fishing industries in the world, according to the California Seafood Council. Since the late 1990s, city, state and federal fishing rules—including fleet-size reductions; catch limits; and the closing of large areas to certain types of nets, hooks and traps—have been put into place and are constantly reassessed for effectiveness. Many of those regulations were spearheaded by fishermen themselves.

Paul Romanowski, a free diver and spear fisherman in Huntington Beach, says today's fishermen, while often portrayed as villains in eco-politics, are in fact conservationists who view themselves as stewards of the sea, the ones who can help rebuild depressed fish stocks through daily monitoring. Catch-and-release (returning fish to the water unharmed after reeling them in) or, in the case of spear divers, simply taking only what you're going to eat have become the preferred methods of fishing.

"If you took away firemen, there would be no fire protection," Romanowski says, offering a comparison. "Who are the eyes and the ears of the ocean? Who are the ones that pushed for Assembly Bill 132 [the gillnet ban initiative] [1]? Who pushed for the protection of black sea bass? The last people on earth who want an empty, fishless ocean are the people who make their living off fishing in the ocean."

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"The only thing good about the closures is that we've sold a million of these maps," says Captain Mark Wisch, the straight-talking owner and operator of Pacific Edge Tackle Shop in Huntington Beach. With giant marlin replicas plastered on the walls and nets filled with plastic lobsters hanging from above, he holds up a laminated, color-coded map of the Los Angeles and Orange County MPAs, which he sells for $6.99 a pop.

With a number of Southern California bait-and-tackle stores closing their doors in recent months (Fisherman's Hardware in Long Beach, Purfield's Pro Tackle in Los Angeles, J&T Tackle in Simi Valley), Wisch stays competitive by offering niche services such as tank installation and by serving as a resource for fishermen trying to navigate the closures. The network of MPAs can seem convoluted and daunting, as protection levels vary among areas.

He points to a red zone on one of his maps. "This area here is closed-closed," Wisch says. "It's done. You can't do anything there."

His finger moves to another spot. "This area over here is mostly closed." And another. "This area around the back is really confusing to people because it has some things you can't do and some things you can do."

Six months after the reserves were implemented, fishermen still struggle to figure out where they can and can't go fishing, even with the assistance of GPS technology. "I live on my electronics and can't tell you where the boundaries are," says Healy. "It's not a latitude-longitude line—it's a plotted line. On land, if they don't want you to go someplace, they mark it with a sign or paint a line."

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