The publisher of a sportfishing magazine has come up with a novel idea for solving the decades-old conflict between sport fishermen and commercial gill net fishermen:
Ban the gill nets.
Ken Kukuda recently received permission from March Fong Eu, California secretary of state, to circulate petitions for an initiative he hopes will appear on the 1988 state ballot.
Kukuda calls his proposed initiative the "Ocean Resources Emergency Protection Law." If it qualifies for the ballot and is passed by the voters, the measure will put gill nets in the history books. It would outlaw the use of a gill net, trammel net "or any other entangling net" in ocean waters within 75 miles of California's coast.
Sportfishing interests in Southern California have opposed the use of gill nets for years, complaining that the nets kill many nontargeted fish, such as striped marlin.
More recently, environmental organizations have joined the fray, citing deaths of marine mammals and birds allegedly caused by gill nets.
Greenpeace, for example, calling gill nets "curtains of death," says that Japan's salmon drift-net fleet alone incidentally kills about 5,000 Dall's porpoises a year. The organization also claims that Japanese, Taiwanese and South Korean gill nets yearly kill hundreds of thousands of sea birds and lesser numbers of turtles.
Gill nets are monofilament-webbed nets, hung vertically in the ocean with floats at the top and weights at the bottom. They trap, and eventually kill, any fish, marine mammal or bird that becomes entangled.
The state Department of Fish and Game says there are 1,200 licensed gill netters in California. In 1984, in response to rising complaints of abuses by gill netters, the DFG ordered a moratorium on gill net permits, freezing the number at 1,127.
In Southern California, the principal target species of gill net fishermen are thresher sharks, herring, halibut, swordfish, rock fish, white croaker and barracuda.
Obviously, the commercial fishing industry will fight Kukuda's initiative.
"I'm amazed, absolutely amazed," said Robert Ross, president of the California Seafood Institute in Sacramento.
Ross implied that commercial fishing interests will be drawing from a deeper well than sportfishing groups when it comes time to finance the two campaigns in 1988, if the initiative qualifies for the ballot.
"We already have begun making plans to fight it, and it will cost a bundle," he said. "I hope the proponents understand what it will cost them, if it winds up on the ballot. This is a contest between two ocean user groups. One amounts to 5% of the population, the other amounts to 95% of the population."
Nello Castagnola, president of the California Gill Netters Assn., said that the initiative, if passed, would put several hundred gill netters out of work.
"There are about 1,100 gill net permits out, but only 300 or 400 people are fishing regularly with them," he said.
"It's very simple. The sport guys want to throw all of us out of work. They want the whole ocean to themselves. All those stories about whales and sea lions, that's all propaganda. We have observers who come on our boats. They'll tell you the same thing.
"The fish out there belong to all the people of California, not just to the sportfishermen. If you can't spare the time to go out there and catch your fish, I'll go out and catch it for you, right? OK, the way we see it, the little old lady in Pasadena who wants to buy some fish at the market has just as much right to do so as the sport guys do to go fishing."
Kukuda is a newcomer to the sportfishing-commercial fishing wars. Two years ago, he was looking for a business to invest in, and came upon South Coast Sportfishing magazine, which was for sale in Santa Ana.
"At that time, I hadn't done a lot of fishing myself, but I looked at how many people did sportfish in the ocean in Southern California and decided the market was there for a successful magazine operation," he said.
Kukuda, 36, began looking into the politics and management issues of the saltwater fishing scene in Southern California and developed a rather feisty editorial policy toward the Department of Fish and Game. The agency, he says, is tilted toward the commercial fishing industry in its fisheries management policies.
"If it's one thing I've heard over and over again from sportfishing people, it's that the DFG sides with the commercial people on almost every issue," Kukuda said. "In fact, some sportfishing people actually believe the commercial fishing industry is running the DFG.
"Gill net violations occur almost daily, and there's virtually no law enforcement. So you complain to the DFG about, say, gill net violations in Santa Monica Bay (where gill nets are prohibited) and the DFG will say, 'Well, we don't have enough patrol boats.' If you ask them how much they'd need for another patrol boat, they'll tell you $650,000, which is ridiculous.