Fishermen sense end of the line

Posted: Sunday, October 06, 2002

NOYO, Calif. - Fishing off the fogbound coast of Northern California, the skipper of the Verna Jean has seen some cruel things: killing storms and drowning friends, steel boats tossed about by waves so fearsome that men came home and never went to sea again.

But this is hard. "I almost cry just talking about it," said Vincent Doyle, sitting in the wheelhouse of his 60-foot trawler. "I always thought that I'd be the one to last. But I am beginning to wonder how strong I am."

The West Coast fishing fleet is crashing. From Canada to Mexico, the once-thriving business of dragging nets through the ocean has become a victim of its own success. Too many boats are chasing too few fish. For the first time, there is talk at the docks that this might be the end for a way of life.

"I think the government ought to provide us some counseling. I mean it," Doyle said. "But our government doesn't think much about us. We're not rich and powerful, we don't have friends in high places like the farmers do, and the environmentalists probably just wish we'd go away."

The situation is especially galling to these fishermen and their supporters because the federal government was partly responsible for increasing the size and lethality of the fleet.

In 1976, Congress passed the Magnuson Act, which extended the nation's "exclusive economic zone" 200 miles from shore. To defend those rights, the federal government provided low-interest loans and marketing assistance to "Americanize" the fishing fleet and supplant Soviet, Bulgarian, Korean and Japanese vessels.

"It worked. We did what we were told to do," said Pete Leipzig, executive director of the Fishermen's Marketing Association, who also directed the Americanization program. "With the government's active encouragement, we produced a large and highly efficient fleet that now has nothing left to catch."

Now, emergency federal regulations have drastically slashed the groundfish harvest this year and the next, which will likely reduce the fleet by half and maybe much more. Fishing trawlers are now banned from operating at their most productive depths all along the West Coast. It is possible that the fishery here will follow the disastrous turn of events that decimated the New England fleets.

The new restrictions follow a profound shift in the way society and the federal government view the sea. Once, it was a fishing ground, to be exploited by modern hunter-gatherers. But in recent years - coinciding with a boom in the number of boutique environmental groups dedicated to saving the oceans - the sea has been widely seen as an ecosystem, to be nurtured and protected.

"It is a major shift in priorities, from short-term economics to long-term conservation," said Karen Garrison, a senior policy analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group that has sued to limit fishing.

Garrison blames the fishermen for "scraping our sea floors and unraveling the rich web of ocean life." She compares fishing with trawl nets to "clear-cutting" forests.

Which is nonsense, say the fishermen. "We don't clear-cut; we trim the grass," said Brian Jourdain, who fishes the trawler Blue Pacific from Noyo Harbor.

Jourdain and his comrades say the fleet fishes very little of the coastal waters, avoiding vast areas because they are too steep or rocky or littered with wrecks.

He asked: "We go back to the same spots year after year for generations and catch fish, so how can we be clear-cutting the oceans?"

Part of the problem is that scientists are not sure what is happening with the fish. Population estimates are crude, and researchers don't fully understand the natural variation in fish stocks, which can fluctuate wildly from decade to decade.

The Pacific Coast is home not only to halibut and salmon, but also to scarce and long-lived bottom-dwelling creatures that most diners have never heard of, such as thornyheads, shortbellies and chilipeppers - and especially the rockfish called the bocaccio. (A lot of these species are sold at grocery stores as snapper or cod.)

However spotty, recent evidence suggests that some species are so overfished that it could take centuries for their stocks to recover - with absolutely no fishing allowed. Merely mandating that threatened fish that are netted be thrown back alive won't work, because many species have bladders that explode when they are brought up from the depths.

As fish stocks began dwindling, the Magnuson Act was rewritten in 1996 to mandate that fisheries be managed to support species that are having the most trouble and that federal overseers do what is necessary to replenish their numbers.

That change, however, didn't work as well as hoped, resulting in the emergency regulations that were imposed this summer - regulations that have fueled fear and resentment among the fishermen.

"Unlike the farmers, who are treated as a vital arm of national security, as a business, the fishing industry is treated as an environmental problem - fish as Bambi and the ocean as a blue zoo," said Rod Moore, executive director of the West Coast Seafood Processors Association.

The environmentalists warn that there "are no fishermen without fish." Many fishermen agree that some species are overfished, but they say it is not their fault.

"That is the myth, that we've been unregulated," said Tommy Ancona, a third-generation fisherman whose trawler sports a for-sale sign. "We're the most regulated industry you could find. They tell us - the government - from month to month, exactly how many fish, where and when."

Zeke Grader, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, said federal and state regulators were to blame for alternating between weak and draconian responses.

There are about 500 boats fishing on the West Coast with federal permits and 1,500 others working without them - way down from their peak in the 1980s, when the Noyo River was lined with boats roped to one another, almost blocking the channel.

Many fishermen do not have pensions or savings. Their boats, worth several hundreds of thousands of dollars, are their retirement accounts. But they can't sell them; there is no market because there are no fish to catch.

The fishermen, their supporters and even the environmentalists would like Congress to support a program in which the government would buy fishermen's boats and gear - and scrap them.

Such a program would be funded by Congress but repaid by the remaining fleet with taxes over a 30-year period.

Moore, of the seafood processors association, is only half-joking when he says that if taxpayers really want to save money and if they insist on a blue zoo, they should "just close the industry down" and eat Nile perch that have been farm-raised in Chile.

Garrison, the environmentalist, said, "We'll continue to have some fishing on the West Coast, but it will look very different." She means: more selective gear, marine refuges and zoning, and a much smaller fleet.

The future of the fishery, if there is one, could include placing observers on every boat and perhaps even hooking up all the vessels to computers, video cameras and satellite tracking devices that would beam data to a central federal agency that would monitor every time the trawler dipped its nets into the water.

Small coastal towns along the West Coast were based on timber and fish, both dwindling industries. The fishermen worry that the only jobs left will be serving tourists in motels and restaurants - and many of these men say they took to the sea to avoid such a fate.

Doyle, the captain of the Verna Jean, remembers running his trawler relentlessly, with two crews and an alternate skipper.

"We came in to unload and do some repairs, and then out we went. This boat supported seven families," Doyle said. "Now it's my family and one young guy who works for me part time."

Even when he took the long view, it wasn't encouraging: "I guess we are the last hunters and gatherers," he said. "Maybe we're just not very evolved. Maybe we're just going to go extinct."

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