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Mexican Law May Put Final Bite on Bait Boats : Tiny Tuna Fleet Must Revamp or Ply New Waters

March 11, 1987|HILLIARD HARPER | Times Staff Writer

The once-mighty San Diego "bait boat" fishing fleet, which in its heyday numbered more than 240 tuna clippers and plowed the seas off Panama, Peru and the Galapagos Islands, is about to die.

Only five boats--three of which actively fish--remain in the city that spawned and developed a method of commercial fishing that became the mainstay of the American tuna industry.

But those few boats, which use fishing poles, barbless hooks and live bait, are certain to be squeezed out, due to a recent law passed in Mexico that prohibits foreign vessels from fishing inside its 12-mile territorial limit.

"It hurts," said Carl Nish, 43, who has fished commercially for more than 30 years. "I started when I was a little kid. I liked it. I was making a living.

"We'll have to do something else, concentrate more on albacore or (fish) the South Pacific. I don't know what I'm going to do at the moment."

Bob Pringle, a fellow bait boat owner, echoed Nish's sentiments. ". . . we would just have to go foreign, maybe fish over near Tahiti," Pringle said.

It was the seizure of Pringle's boat, the Karen Kristie, by Mexican authorities last month that brought to light the new law, which prevents the fishermen from replenishing their supply of anchovies for bait inside Mexico's 12-mile limit. Bait fish usually swim in coastal waters.

The law "puts the San Diego bait boats out of business," said Bill Perkins, general manager of the Western Fish Boat Owners Assn.

"Most of the fish are south of 23 degrees north latitude (south of Cabo San Lucas, Mexico)," Perkins said. "That means a 600-mile trip just to get bait," if boats have to return to California waters.

According to Perkins, several alternatives face the remaining bait boat owners. The most expensive is a costly structural change to equip boats with gill nets for swordfish and pelagic thresher sharks.

Boats also could be converted to trolling rigs. Instead of nine fishermen, a crew of only three or four would be needed to man 12 to 15 poles rigged for trolling with artificial bait.

But the trolling grounds are farther from San Diego, in either the South Pacific, near American Samoa or in the Central Pacific, in the area of Midway Island.

"I don't want any of that," Nish said. "That's my last resort. I have put my whole life into this."

He said his son and daughter, who are teen-agers, have already suffered because he has frequently been away on trips. Having to make 4,000-mile transits between fishing grounds and port does not appeal to Nish.

"They might stop home to spend a day or two with their wives," Perkins said of the owners, "but it will make Pacific Ocean gypsies out of them."

Today only five bait boats, which range from about 70 to 100 feet in length, call San Diego their home port.

The bait boat industry was begun in San Diego by Japanese-Americans around 1910. With the advent of diesel engines in the 1920s, the range of the boats was extended. After World War II, San Diego tuna clippers were fishing the seas off the Galapagos Islands.

In the late 1950s, the introduction of the purse seiner, which uses a huge net to trap fish, was the beginning of the end for the bait boats. Ninety-seven bait boats had abandoned their poles and converted to purse seiners by 1963.

The impending demise of the bait boat was apparent by the mid 1970s, when San Diego was home to only 43 vessels. Partly because of Mexican enforcement of its 200-mile "exclusive economic zone," most of the boats were sold earlier this decade to Mexican, Venezuelan and Brazilian fishermen.

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