OC Fishermen Are Out to Sea

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

Fisher believes the closures undermine efforts by community members and chefs to build a market for local, sustainable, wild-caught seafood. Restaurants and fish markets are feeling the squeeze. "We've had to downsize, cut down on expenses, run fewer boats," says Marcos Voyatzil from the Dory Fishing Fleet Market. "There is literally no future in fishing."

Healy, the Laguna Beach lobsterman, predicts the historic demand for California spiny lobsters will further push the industry to the Mexican fishery, which he says may have "less responsible methods of harvest." California fishermen can't fish commercially in Mexico due to work visas.

Recreational angler groups in California are now trying to overturn MLPA regulations in court. Last year, a group of fishermen filed suit against the state Fish and Game Commission, arguing the MLPA process violated the California Environmental Quality Act. The case is in the California Court of Appeals, and plaintiffs speculate it will be heard at the end of the year.

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

For now, it's a waiting game in terms of how the closures will affect fishing in the long run. "I've invested 23 years in it," says 42-year-old Healy, who lives in Capistrano Beach. "It's not like I'm gonna quit now."

Growing up in Laguna Beach, Healy says, fishing kept him out of trouble. "If I didn't fish, I would have probably smoked pot and sat in front of the TV. The freedom and luxuries that I lived under aren't available to kids anymore." Fishermen wonder if they'll have to teach their children about the ocean by pointing from the shore.

Fishing is unlikely to disappear from Orange County entirely—the activity, ingrained in tradition, evokes a nostalgia for a simpler time when pioneers relied on skill, ingenuity and sometimes a dose of good luck to feed their families. But it's more difficult now.

"One of the things that was lost in the MLPA process," says Fisher, "was that this resource belongs to everyone."

Ivar Southern feels the same way. A third-generation lobster fisherman, his love affair with the sea began as a toddler, when he'd watch his father set gill nets off the Long Beach shore. For decades, his parents fished for lobsters together along the rocky reefs of Orange County and sold their catch both abroad and to local restaurants such as Newport Beach's Bluewater Grill on Lido Isle. (There, his mother was listed in the owner's Rolodex as "Lobster Linda.") In his early 20s, Southern decided that this would be his life, too.

"It's about the freedom," Southern says of the fisherman's existence, his crystal eyes squinting in the sun. "I can see for miles out on the ocean, and no one's telling me what to do. It beats looking at the wall in front of you. I always knew that if I worked hard, I could make something."

For now, to make up for his nearly 40 percent loss in fishing grounds, the Costa Mesa resident is thinking about either using the money he had saved up for a home to buy a bigger boat and fish outside of Orange County or simply "keep scratching" and see how things go. He looks out to the water, unsure where the new currents will take him.

"Everything I have, it's all due to fishing," Southern says. "It's what I do, you know? I fish."

[1] The Assembly Bill number and identifying information in this quote was changed on June 22, 2012. Paul Romanowski was misquoted.

This article appeared in print as "Out to Sea: Due to overregulation in the name of conservation, Orange County fishermen face extinction."

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