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Dory Fleet Must Face Realities

July 21, 2002

Newport Beach's dory fleet has weathered storms, a massive oil spill, hard economic times and the continued urbanization of Orange County. But the colorful fleet isn't likely to survive if an emergency ban adopted June 20 leads to an indefinite prohibition against fishing the continental shelf off Southern California. The uncertain future is a painful reminder for dory men that, when it comes to keeping the Pacific healthy, it's necessary to think globally but act locally.

Scientists who study offshore fish populations say the time for debate has ended, that it is time to protect bottom-dwelling fish. Of 16 types of rockfish studied off the California coast, nine have been grossly overfished. It will take several decades of protection before the rockfish species, often sold at markets and restaurants as red snapper, will be able to recover.

Those who have watched fishermen pilot their 18-foot boats through the pounding waves--or held their breath as an open boat surfs back to shore--have glimpsed Orange County's past. The last working dory fleet on the West Coast has been anchored in the shadow of Newport Pier since 1891. Outboard engines have replaced oars and sails, but dory men still use mile-long lines studded with thousands of hooks to catch fish--removing their catch by hand while battling the elements. Said one veteran: "It's always been a tough buck."

Dory men have been drifting away from the fleet for decades in search of less dangerous and more predictable work. Some left after the 1990 oil spill off of Huntington Beach fouled a popular fishing spot.

Just six dory men remain, down from nearly 20 a decade ago.

The fleet's catch represents a small and steadily declining fraction of the state's $550-million annual fish harvest.

Dory fishermen probably are right to blame depleted fish populations on larger commercial fishing operations. But scientists who monitor fish populations say stocks are so severely depleted that it no longer matters who's doing the fishing.

It's hard not to feel sympathy for men whose livelihoods are threatened by regulations. But commercial fishermen who head to sea in small boats seem destined to go the way of the area's once-plentiful orange groves and, as The Times reported last week, the cowboys who long have ridden the county's now-disappearing ranchlands.

It would be easy to demand that the federal government exempt the dory fleet, with its long and colorful history, from the ban. But if scientists' studies are to be believed, a ban is necessary to ensure the long-term health of the overall fishing industry--no matter if it prohibits huge trawlers trailing massive nets or a six dory men using their hands to pull fish from the ocean.

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