August 13, 2002
By CAROL BENFELL THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Consumers and coastal communities will feel the hit along with fishermen when federal and state regulators clamp down on fishing for rockfish this fall.
The reef-loving rockfish, sold in markets as red snapper or rock cod, are a favorite of sports fishermen and a staple of the commercial fishing industry.
But next month regulators are expected to drastically limit or eliminate catches, at least for commercial fishermen, because seven of the 60-odd rockfish species have been fished to near-extinction.
Sports fishermen can expect smaller bag limits and a shorter season, perhaps only two months of what was once a year-round fishery. And the restrictions could last for decades because the fish mature slowly.
As a result, consumers will find different kinds of fish at their fish markets and at restaurants and fast-food chains. Most of the fish will be imported from Canada, Mexico or South America, sending prices up.
The economy of fishing ports, such as Bodega Bay and Fort Bragg, will feel the change as fewer sports fishermen come to town and fewer dollars are spent on motels, restaurants, stores and bait shops.
"It's depressing," said Jim Martin of Fort Bragg, vice president of United Anglers, a sportsfishing organization. "They're talking about no rockfishing during our lifetimes on the whole continental shelf."
The federal Pacific Fishery Management Council, which oversees rockfish, on July 1 placed an emergency ban on commercial and sport rockfishing along the coasts of Washington, Oregon and California.
The action closed some of the richest fishing grounds on the North Coast, although the state Fish and Game Department still allows rockfishing in waters less than 120 feet deep.
Most industry observers believe the federal ban will be extended indefinitely, at least for commercial fishermen, to protect the rockfish species. That decision comes the week of Sept. 9 to 13 when the fisheries council meets in Portland.
"The feds will close the fishery until somebody finds another way of protecting the species that are depleted," said Michael Weber, a fisheries consultant for Fish and Game.
He said the ban under consideration reflects fundamental misjudgments by federal fishery managers.
There was little information about rockfish when the market for them exploded in the early 1980s. Sports fishermen have caught rockfish for years because they are close to shore and were once plentiful year-round. Commercial fishermen, including trawlers, moved in during the 1980s when Bay Area Asian restaurants began paying a premium for live rockfish.
Regulators assumed the rockfish grew fast and matured early, like Eastern cod, but they were wrong, Weber said.
"The fish were not nearly as productive as thought to be. We found out we were fishing redwoods, not Georgia pine," he said.
But if the federal agency closes rockfishing offshore, Fish and Game will have to place new restrictions on areas near shore as well. Otherwise, offshore fishermen will simply move closer in, said Chamois Andersen, a spokeswoman for Fish and Game.
"Our rockfish are at sustainable levels now, but with more people coming and the same number of fish, we're going to have to be very careful," Andersen said.
Fishermen will feel the blow in September, when an abundant salmon season ends. Coastal communities will not be far behind.
In 2000, sports and commercial fishermen added some $12.4 million to the economies of North Coast communities, such as Bodega Bay and Fort Bragg, according to state and federal figures.
"When it's going to matter is when the salmon season is over and there's no place for fishermen to turn," said Donna Freeman, a member of the Bodega Bay fishing community.
"It affects the whole bay because it affects the number of people who will come. All the businesses need the money they spend," Freeman said.
Lisa Scott, manager of the Bodega Harbor Inn, which offers package deals to fishermen, said business dropped 14 to 20 percent during last year's emergency closure of rockfishing.
"Right now, a lot of fishermen are going out for salmon, but we'll definitely start losing business after that if they can't go out for rock cod," Scott said."
Occupancy at the Valley Ford Hotel, which also caters to fishermen, is down 60 percent this year, said owner Wil Morrow, who also operates a party boat business and sells bait and tackle.
Morrow said he will lose 35 percent of his party boat business if rockfishing is banned.
Diekmann's Bay Store in Bodega Bay, where fishermen stock up on groceries, also is feeling the pinch. The fishermen are coming in, but they're not spending as much, said P.J. Sandhu, one of the owners.
The changes ahead are foreshadowed by the emergency ban on July 1, which has already affected the kinds of fish consumers can get in restaurants and markets and the price they pay.
"It's putting a pretty big dent in our business," said Chris Schimpf, a fish house worker at Lucas Wharf. "People like to come out and buy whole rockfish and it's just not happening.
The Tides and Lucas Wharf are serving rockfish from Canada because they can't get them locally. The imports cost $4 a pound wholesale, compared with $1.50 a pound for local rockfish, Schimpf said.
Mike Lucas, owner of North Coast Fisheries Inc., a fish processor in Santa Rosa, said he now looks internationally for rockfish for his customers.
He processed about 600,000 pounds of rockfish during the 2001 six-month fishing season, about the same as he would have processed in a single month in the early 1990s.
"We take fish from around the world now -- New Zealand, Fiji, Hawaii, Canada, Norway and Scotland," Lucas said.
Weber says consumers also can expect substitutions for the fish they're used to. Restaurants that used live rockfish will be selling surf perch. At stores and markets, fish buyers will see more Alaska pollock or orange roughy from New Zealand.
"You're seeing shark on the market now, because you can't get rockfish. It's not because people always liked shark," Weber said.
You can reach Staff Writer Carol Benfell at 521-5259 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.