The Pacific Fishery Management Council, in spite of relying on “scientific” data that was widely criticized by recreational anglers, on November 5 decided to close recreational fishing and most commercial fishing for rockfish and lingcod along the California coast six weeks early.
“Their decision wasn’t based on the best available science – it was based on the best available garbage,” contended Randy Fry, chairman of the NorCal Chapter of the Recreational Fishing Alliance (RFA).
The rockcod season, barring any successful legal challenges, will close on November 21. The Council made its decision at its meeting in Del Mar, San Diego County on the allegation that recreational catches were over quota.
The controversial Marine Recreational Fishery Statistics Study (MRFSS ), based on the “data” of 319 anglers obtained out of 6,000 random phone calls, claimed that 14 metric tons of canary rockfish – an overfished species – had been caught by anglers in July and August, exceeding the allowable quota.
However, Fry noted that zero canary rockfish may be retained by anglers, making this figure useless. “If this many illegal canary rockfish were caught, the DFG wardens must really be doing lousy jobs,” quipped Fry.
Even more absurd, the survey somehow determined that recreational anglers had caught over 60,000 pounds (30 metric tons) of lingcod before July 1. This is also impossible because the rockcod season south of Cape Mendocino didn’t even open until July 1! “The survey the federal government made the decision on is a joke,” said Fry.
An alternative scientific report compiled by Dan Wohlford of Coastside Fishing Club/RFA tried to get a “real time” handle on the actual catch by private boaters from July through September. Volunteers poured through each day’s postings on the Coastside website and tabulated the number of rockfish trips versus everything else during a season when albacore and salmon fishing was remarkably good.
In spite of the severe shortcomings of the MRFSS data, the Council voted on the closure, claiming it was the “best available science,” according to Bob Strickland, president of United Anglers of California.
“Recreational anglers tried to get the Council to hold off on the closure until Thanksgiving weekend, but the council refused to do it,” said Strickland. “They admittedly didn’t have good data to make the decision, but the MRFSS data was all they had. We asked the council to find a better way to come up with the data in the future.”
The MRFSS survey determined that nearly double of the near-near shore rockfish quota (800 metric tons) was exceeded, while 50 percent of the deeper near shore fish quota was surpassed, added Strickland.
Bob Osborn of United Anglers of Southern California (UASC) said recreational anglers “were basically shafted” by the state of California. Osborn said the state of California had not allocated the money so that the DFG could collect good data regarding rockfish. Faced with this data vacuum, the federal government relied on the MRFFS survey.
He also criticized the Council and California for not recognizing catch and release in the nearshore fishery, as Washington and Oregon have done.
“Washington will continue to allow lingcod and rockfish fishing inside the 3 mile limit, from 15 to 20 fathoms,” said Osborn. “The state of Oregon will allow anglers to fish in water of 27 fathoms and less. They will continue fishing because they will allow anglers to catch and release canary rockfish and lingcod.”
The good news is that Robert Hight, the DFG director under whose “leadership” these rockfish closures occurred, has resigned to take a judicial appointment. Hopefully, the new director will dedicate money and staff – both in short supply because of the California budget crisis – to the collection of better groundfish data.
Sonke Mastrup, interim DFG director, explained that the problem is that the DFG and PFMC have traditionally devoted little emphasis to compiling recreational fishing data for groundfish.
“The catches of commercial anglers have been measured by hundreds of tons, while recreational catches have been measured by twos and threes,” he said. “The recreational catch was so small in comparison to the big picture that it was like a rounding error. All of this changed when the groundfish stocks started collapsing. All of a sudden, the low level or recreational activity became important.”
Mastrup hopes that the new California Recreational Fishing Data System (CRFS) that will replace MRFSS will provide more credible data on the recreational groundfish catch. Whereas MRFSS was based on random phone calls, the new survey will sample actual fishing license holders. He added that an effective observer program that interviews anglers as they come in from their boats will also help fill the data gap.
The rockfish closure will have a big impact upon sportfishing operations and the many tourist related businesses along the California coast that they depend upon. This is in spite of the fact that the MRFSS survey was never designed to make inseason adjustments.
“I’m not happy at all with the federally-mandated groundfish closure, but we have to work with what we got,” explained Mastrup. “The federal government – NOAA Fisheries – controls the management of most ocean fisheries and we’re legally obliged to follow. I’m getting worried because every time we look at the groundfish numbers, they look worse.”
Fortunately, ocean conditions are becoming cooler, creating better conditions for juvenile rockfish. Lots of juvenile rockfish are showing now – but it will take many years for most species to rebuild.
“One of my goals is to get rid of the inseason adjustments in groundfish fisheries,” added Mastrup. “We need to set the groundfish seasons like we do the waterfowl season for hunters – set the season and leave it until it’s over. We need more predictability in the setting of seasons.”
In spite of the closure, Jim Martin, RFA NorCal Media Chairman, believes that the new report compiled by Coastside/RFA opens the way to more angler participation in creating accurate scientific data on recreational catches.
“We knew going into this that there was a 99.9 percent chance of closure, but we wanted to take the opportunity of fighting the good fight for that sliver of a chance,” said Martin. “Although the rest of this year’s rockfish/lingcod season is lost, we earned the respect of every stakeholder group at the table in the big Council room.”
The irony of the recreational closure is that it occurred in spite of the fact that commercial fishing, including long-lining, trawling and stick and trap gear, has traditionally taken over 90 percent of the groundfish catch. Although commercial groundfish quotas have been cut dramatically in the past several years, the highly destructive practice of trawling continues.
Tom Raftican, president of UASC, said that the recent closure should serve as a “wake up call to what our future will be like if we don’t stop trawling here and now.”
Raftican expressed little doubt that bottom trawling will have to be eliminated before rockfish stocks can ever recover. “The state doesn’t see the connection, because bottom trawlers usually target pink shrimp, halibut and sea cucumbers. Our studies have shown a terrible impact on habitat and the entire food chain that supports rockfish stocks, as well as on juvenile rockfish themselves.”
A United Anglers-sponsored bill, supported by Oceana and the National Resources Defense Council, is underway to stop this practice that supporters refer to as “clear-cutting the ocean floor.” This bill, SB 236, is currently in the Senate Appropriations Committee.