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

"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."

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.

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."

* * *

"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."

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.

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."

* * *

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.

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.

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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