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California and the West

Squid Squeeze

Fishing: El Nino is putting the catch out of reach. State asks federal government to declare an economic disaster.


A commercial fisherman since age 12, Tom Jerkovich now skippers his own million-dollar rig, with three crew members to help haul the catch from a net that spans a quarter-mile.

But for weeks on end over the last few months, Jerkovich's 67-foot Pacific Leader has sat idle at Berth 73 in the San Pedro harbor, catching nothing but wind. When he has taken the boat out on the ocean, Jerkovich has been reduced to fishing for sardines--"pet food," he calls it disparagingly, which sells for $80 a ton.

"It barely pays the bills," the 41-year-old fisherman grouses.

It wasn't always like this. Jerkovich and others like him up and down the state's coast normally fish for squid, a popular and pricey commodity that shows up as calamari at seafood restaurants. But the squid have all but disappeared in the wake of El Nino.

The numbers are staggering. By industry and government estimates, the haul of squid in California has dwindled from 100 million pounds last season to virtually nothing this year, as warm coastal temperatures have driven the squid to colder, deeper--and far more unfishable--waters.

Hauls of herring, sea urchin and rockfish also appear to have suffered big drop-offs, and fishing industry leaders call the losses "cataclysmic."

But help may finally be on its way.

After hearing months of pleas from the industry, the Governor's Office of Emergency Services in Sacramento is now asking the federal government to declare an economic disaster in the state's fishing trade.

In a letter sent to the U.S. Small Business Administration on Friday, the state said businesses in 17 counties--including all 15 on the coast--have been hurt by the phenomenon and should be made eligible for low-interest loans of as much as $1.5 million each to help them.

"It really has affected California border to border," Nancy Ward, emergency services' deputy state coordinating officer, said in an interview.

Small-business administrators in Washington, D.C., will begin looking at the request immediately. Agency spokesman Rick Jenkins said, "It's a fair bet, depending on the data," that disaster assistance will be approved, perhaps within the next few days.

"This is certainly good news," Zeke Grader, executive director of the San Francisco-based Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, said when told of the request. "We didn't get any response [from officials in Sacramento] originally, and there's been a certain amount of frustration, but I'm happy that at least they're acting now."

For sportfishers, an increase in coastal water temperatures of up to six degrees because of El Nino has meant an abundance of exotic species such as yellowtail and bluefin tuna in some areas. But it has been a very different story for the commercial fishing fleet.

California's coastal waters are home to the fourth-biggest commercial fishing industry in the nation, worth more than $800 million a year, according to officials with the California Seafood Council in Santa Barbara.

Commercial Growth

In the last few years, squid has become the biggest single staple in the commercial fishing diet, growing from 19 million pounds caught in 1989 to an estimated 156 million pounds last year. The squid, selling for about $300 per ton, has attracted dozens of Washington state fishers to local waters, particularly off Ventura and San Pedro.

The tremendous growth has fueled tensions between local and out-of-state squid fishers, and some worry that the white, 8-inch long mollusks caught in California waters are being overfished, threatening their long-term prospects. But Doyle Hanan, senior marine biologist with the state Department of Fish and Game, said their recent disappearance from fishing waters is simply a reflection of the migration caused by El Nino.

"The squid resources are in good condition. They're avoiding the warm water, either by going deeper or going north," said Hanan, who is leading a new three-year state study on the squid and how best to regulate their harvest.

To finance that study, the state is instituting a $2,500 permit fee for all commercial squid fishers, but many complain that El Nino has made it tough for them to pay for their expenses--much less a pricey new permit.

"El Nino has decimated us," said Tim Sullivan, a Half Moon Bay fisherman who scours the Channel Islands for squid in winter. A father of five, Sullivan said: "We're nearly starving to death. . . . Even if you save and plan ahead, it's hard to prepare for this."

Last year, Sullivan said he landed 2,000 tons of squid in three months, grossing his boat nearly $450,000. This year, he said, he has caught next to nothing.

Squid fishers up and down the West Coast share similar stories.

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