Senate Bill 236, a bill designed to restrict destructive bottom trawling in California waters, has been held in the Appropriations Committee of the State Senate until next year. The extension of the trawling legislation into a two year bill is a result of the current state budget crisis and significant opposition by trawl fishing proponents.
The bill, introduced in February by Senator Dede Alpert (D-San Diego) and co-authored by Assembly Member Tom Harman (R- Huntington Beach), seeks to reduce the damage caused by bottom trawling. Bill sets strict standards of sustainability that trawlers must meet in order to continue fishing. And The bill provides that the trawl nets cannot cause significant harm to the ocean bottom and that bycatch must not exceed 15 percent of the catch of target species.
The bill would fund observers on the boats, collect data on the bycatch and use the data against the performance standards of trawl operators. “Trawl net operators would either get a permit or not, based on standards of habitat damage and bycatch,” stated Karen Reyna of The Ocean Conservancy.
The legislation now covers state exempted trawl fisheries, particularly the pink prawn fishery centered around Crescent City. Because no observers are currently going on the boats, nobody really knows what the bycatch or habitat destruction caused by trawling is now. All of these trawl fisheries have no current harvest guidelines and current extent of their management is gear, such as the size of the net mesh, according to Reyna.
Bill supporters include United Anglers of Southern California (UASC), United Anglers of California, the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, the Ocean Conservancy, Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council. A coalition of commercial fishermen’s organizations and coastal cities, including Crescent City, Santa Barbara, Monterey, Eureka and the County of Del Norte, objected strongly to the bill.
“The problems we are experiencing now with groundfish all go back to bottom trawling,” said Tom Raftican, president of UASC. “Bottom trawling is the most irresponsible form of fishing and this bill gives us a chance to do something about it. The bycatch and habitat destruction caused by trawling is incredible.”
According to Raftican, bottom trawlers drag heavy nets across the ocean floor, raking in everything in their path from living fish, sponges, coral, mollusks and other invertebrates to the rocky bottom structure that provides shelter and breeding grounds for marine life. The vast majority of this is discarded by trawlers as “bycatch” – dead and dying animals literally shoveled overboard.
Upon introducing the bill, Albert argued, “As a coastal state known for its progressive environmental policies, California needs to stop destructive fishing practices, and that means halting bottom trawling unless a trawl operation meets strict environmental standards. I decided to introduce this bill after extensive research and fact-finding discussions indicated restrictions are needed now, before it’s too late.”
However, many coastal cities and counties sent letters opposing the legislation. David Finigan, Chairman of the Board of Supervisors of Del Norte County, said his county opposed the bill for a variety of reasons, including the economic impact.
“SB236 will devastate the commercial fishing industry and the communities that depend upon fishing, while providing no benefit to the citizens of California,” said Finigan. “Del Norte’s economy will be especially hurt because the vast majority of the California Pink shrimp fleet is based here.”
Finigan also criticized the bill for not identifying a “specific program that requires a solution ” and proposing “arbitrary and unfounded restrictions that no fishing gear could meet.” He contended that SB 236 would result in the relocation of fishing and fish processing jobs and income to Oregon and Washington, whose fishermen are not affected by California regulations.
Upon hearing of the bill’s extension into a two year bill, he claimed that he was “glad Albert was taking a step backward and fine tuning the bill to do what it originally intended and reexamining of the economic implications of the bill.”
The Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations opposed the bill, although Zeke Grader, its Executive Director, said he supported the legislation’s intent to create a more sustainable fishery.
“The idea of standards for trawlers is not a bad one,” said Grader, “but the bill is not practical as written. For example, the small trawlers who fish the Santa Barbara Channel fish an area that doesn’t lend itself to other gear. But even if we all agreed on the bill, the big problem was with the current budget crisis. By being held over, this will give us time to work together on the bill.”
Grader said he hoped that before next year, the supporters and opponents of the bill would sit down and craft legislation that is more (1) workable for commercial fishermen and (2) figure out the logistics and problems of funding observers.
Proponents of the legislation vowed to work for the bill’s passage in 2004. “The bill’s extension into a two year bill means we will be working on improving SB236 for another year,” Raftican said. “It also means that we’ll have more time to build our coalition and rally support against what will surely be determined opposition from trawling interests.”
“Trawl nets are equal opportunity killers,” Raftican explained. “They make no distinction between adult fish or juvenile ones, and they wipe out living animals and their homes with equal effectiveness. This destruction has to be stopped, and that’s exactly what we aim to do with this bill.”
Doug Obegi, Pacific ecosytem program manager of the Ocean Conservancy, concurred. “We’re disappointed about the legislation made into a two-year bill, but we expect to be succcessful next year,” he said.