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Fish--and Doubters--Are Drawn to the REEF : Sportfishermen are thrilled by a spate of man-made habitats, but gill netters and some coastal experts remain skepticl about the ambitious program

December 06, 1987|ERIC BAILEY and KENNETH J. GARCIA | Times Staff Writers

OCEANSIDE — Time was, Dick Helgren could pilot one of his lumbering sportfishing boats onto the sea off Oceanside and, invariably, the flock of eager anglers on board would return home with a decent catch of fish.

In recent years, however, it has grown harder and harder to hook 'em, a ready sign of what Helgren and others believe is a decline in sportfishing stocks off the Southern California coast.

So it was with open arms that Helgren and other sportfishermen along the northern San Diego County coast welcomed a plan to construct an artificial reef a mile off Oceanside harbor. Designed to serve as a spawning ground and lure more fish into the area, the reef was completed in February--10,000 tons of quarry rock dumped into more than 45 feet of water.

An Early Harvest

To the delight of Helgren, customers on his fleet of seven sportfishing boats have already begun to reap a respectable harvest of fish from the new undersea outcropping.

"We figured it would take a year or two before we'd get any results, but we've had some good days on it already," said Helgren, a sportfisherman for more than three decades. "I think it's great. Over the years, we've seen a drop-off in fish, so any enhancement program is very, very positive."

Along the coast from Santa Barbara to the Mexican border, man-made fishing reefs are sprouting in shoreline waters as part of an ambitious $1-million-a-year effort by the state Department of Fish and Game to enhance sportfishing in the region.

In recent years, the department has overseen construction of half a dozen reefs, among them a subsurface structure off Mission Beach in San Diego and a pair in Santa Monica Bay, including a 20,000-ton behemoth that is the largest of its kind in the world. A reef off Santa Barbara is in the planning stages and Fish and Game officials hope funding will soon be available for four more.

"The goal of our program is to produce more fish," said John Grant, a Fish and Game marine biologist who is helping to lead the reef-building effort.

"These reefs act as a sort of condo complex for fish. They're a place to live. The fish can find food as well as protection from predators and protection from the currents."

Recreational anglers in Los Angeles, San Diego and other Southern California communities are thrilled about the program. They hope it will prove a boon to the region's depleted fish populations, which have dwindled because of pollution and sediment, which has built up on the ocean floor from beach erosion and shoreline runoff and covered natural reef formations.

"Basically, the majority of area off our coast is a sand bottom, which doesn't attract habitat-type fish," said Jim Manues, the Oceanside harbor director. "It's like a desert and the fish are looking for an oasis. You put a rock reef out there and it serves as that oasis."

Despite all the plaudits, some coastal experts remain skeptical, questioning whether the reefs will serve simply as magnets for fish rather than highly productive spawning grounds.

Moreover, the project has been panned by some in the commercial fishing industry, particular those who use gill nets. These commercial fishermen worry that the proliferating reefs pose an obstacle for their nets, which can snag on the rocky structures.

Voices of Opposition

"I'd like to see them disappear," said Nello Castagnola, a San Pedro fisherman and president of the California Gill Netters Assn., which represents 120 commercial fishing outfits from San Francisco to San Diego. "My feeling is they should just leave nature alone. They say they're enhancing the ocean, but I can't see it. All I see them doing is concentrating some fish in one spot where they (sportfishermen) can go and knock them off all the easier."

Some sportfishermen, in turn, blame part of the decline of fishing stocks on gill netters who have "fished out" certain areas. Artificial reefs are one of the few options left to try to increase the dwindling numbers of fish, they say.

Artificial reefs are not new. The Japanese first built them in the 1700s, filling old wooden boats with boulders and sinking them.

These days, Japan employs far more sophisticated efforts to harvest the sea's bounty, submerging complex frameworks of steel and reinforced fiberglass that quickly grow algae and other food sources that fish find delectable.

"They're amazing-looking things. Some look like domes, others like submerged oil platforms, some like spaceships," Grant said.

In the United States, fish reefs have been decidedly more low-tech. Just about everything imaginable has been dumped into the ocean at one time or another to create a fish habitat--trolley cars, derelict merchant vessels, tires that have been lashed together, even discarded toilet bowls.

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