OC Fishermen Are Out to Sea

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

MPA violations can come with hefty fines and a revocation of fishing privileges. Last month, a diver was sentenced to seven days in jail and three years of probation, plus ordered to pay fines of more than $20,000 after being caught with 47 spiny lobsters in a Laguna Beach State Marine Reserve in January. But daily enforcement of MPA regulations remains a challenge: In Orange County, only one warden monitors the entirety of the coast, from Bolsa Chica to San Clemente.

Citizen volunteers are hoping to fill the vacancy. Environmentalist groups have launched a coalition of programs collectively called MPA Watch, in which individuals monitor human activity along the coastline, on beaches, in tide pools and in the ocean to assess how the protections may influence behavior. Costa Mesa-based Orange County Coastkeeper, one of the groups involved, sends out interns and volunteers with binoculars and clipboards to track everything from the number of boats in the water to the number of people collecting seashells on the beach. Potential violations are reported to wardens and marine management to help them target hot spots. The city of Laguna Beach has gone a step further, hiring a Marine Protection Officer who works with the Department of Fish and Game to patrol the reserve.

Some fishermen have balked at such programs, saying the environmentalist groups behind them lack law-enforcement authority. Volunteers have gone so far as to approach fishermen, Greenpeace-style, out in the open sea, to lecture them on where they can and can't fish; unsurprisingly, heated confrontations have ensued, although none have escalated into violence.

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

Ray Hiemstra, associate director of Orange County Coastkeeper, says that's not what his group does. "We don't have any authority and shouldn't be interfering with what people do," he says. "Volunteers are trained to not confront people. A warden can write a ticket. A marine-enforcement officer can write a city citation. We collect data in a scientific way."

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For the fishing businesses that have held on through the maelstrom, things look different these days.

"If you would have asked me a year ago if we'd have a year-round whale-watching boat, I'd call you a nut case," says Don Brockman, owner of Davey's Locker on the Balboa Peninsula. "But it's the only thing that's kept the doors open in the past few years. Four hundred to 500 people a day come to watch those things."

Davey's Locker and Newport Landing Sportfishing are the last remaining landings in Newport Beach, and due to the economy, years of cold water and now the MPA-forced closures (both lost about 25 percent to 30 percent of their fishing grounds), fishing makes up only a portion of their ocean activities. The businesses now focus more on eco-tourism attractions—anyone looking for something fun and different to do with family or friends. Along with whale-watching tours, Newport Landing offers burials at sea and runs cruises during the annual Newport Beach Christmas Boat Parade, the city's beloved waterfront spectacle of holiday lights.

"We're doing whatever we have to do to keep the boats busy," says Thompson of Newport Landing. "The way our business has gone, we are actually exposing more people now to the ocean than we were 10 years ago. That's not what the environmentalists want. They want less people out in the water. What's going on is backfiring on them."

With their fishing activities, the closures have limited the companies as to where they can send their vessels. "In the fishing business, we're used to being able to move around," Thompson says. "We're chasing conditions all the time—like if the water temperature changes in certain areas or the clarity changes in certain areas or the current changes in certain areas. We're hunter-gatherers."

At Davey's Locker, sportfishing was once a seven-days-a-week offering, but now it's only offered on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Brockman says the fishing reserves have been "like putting 10 pounds on our butt." If the weather is bad to the north toward Huntington Flats, where the boats usually head, there's no other option. "I wish [the closures] were a rotating field," he says. "Like, 'Okay, let's close this area for five years and let the fish spawn unmolested, and then move to another area. As a fisherman, that'd make more sense. The way they are now, they're like national parks. They're not changing. The fish are there to look at and not catch."

Some Orange County fishermen have ducked out of the conflict zone altogether. Josh Fisher, a commercial lobster fisherman, had been fishing out of Dana Point for most of his career until two years ago, when it appeared massive MPA regulations were inevitable. He relocated his boat to Redondo Beach. "I saw the writing on the wall," he says. "I made a move to acclimate myself to a new area and not be ostracized later for being a new guy coming in after the closures."

Lobster fishermen were among those hardest hit by the closures in Orange County. Their loss of fishing grounds is unique. The California spiny lobster, whose season runs from October to March, is a delicacy found only in warm, shallow waters from Monterey Bay to Manzanillo in central Mexico, with the highest concentration between Point Conception and Magdalena Bay, Baja California. The crustaceans themselves differ from Maine lobsters—they don't have claws, and, Fisher says, "in terms of taste, they're much richer." The regulations are coming in what's currently a Gold Rush era for lobster fishing—right now, one legal 1.5-pound lobster is worth about $25.

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