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Strict New Limits on Coastal Fishing Adopted

Resources: The federal rules to protect dwindling Pacific species will have far-reaching effects.

September 14, 2002|RONE TEMPEST | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PORTLAND, Ore. — California seafood lovers who crave fresh Pacific sand dabs could have trouble finding them in their local supermarket. Chinese restaurants can expect shortages of live fish to display in their window tanks.

Recreational anglers face shorter seasons and lower limits on catches. Commercial trawlers on the continental shelf will have to make room for federal fishing observers who will be monitoring catch limits.

New federal rules adopted Friday and intended to protect collapsing coastal fish populations will affect people with the most tenuous association with the ocean--from landlocked diners to weekend sportsmen.

Adopted by the Pacific Fishery Management Council after a week of excruciatingly detailed discussion, the rules will govern waters extending from Seattle to San Diego. The U.S. Department of Commerce must sign off on the rules before they take effect Jan. 1.

During a public review period which begins now, fishermen are expected to lobby for changes in the council's recommendations. A listing of the proposed new regulations will posted on the council's Web site, www.pcouncil.org, beginning next week.

But whatever changes do result, most people involved in the debate over fishery management expect a new era of dramatically curtailed fishing that will have lasting effects on the economy and culture of West Coast fishing.

"These are the most restrictive regulations with the most protective measures for the fish ever implemented by the Pacific council," said Phil Kline, a former Eureka, Calif., fishing boat captain who now works as a policy advisor for the conservation group Oceana, based in Washington, D.C.

Kline's conclusions were generally shared by those attending the fishery council's annual meeting here, although commercial fishermen grumbled that the council went too far in setting quotas, while some environmental groups warned that the new rules had too many proposed exceptions.

By acting now with relatively harsh measures, the council is hoping to avoid the overfishing crisis faced in recent years by the Atlantic cod and Gulf of Mexico red snapper industries.

Similar management programs have proven effective with other species, including the Pacific lingcod, mid-Atlantic summer flounder and Chesapeake striped bass, each of which may soon be taken off the federal "overfished" list.

However, California's problems with rockfish are likely to last much longer because of the long life spans and slow breeding habits of the overfished species.

"Unless something changes," said Rod Moore, executive director of the Portland-based West Coast Seafood Processors' Assn., "we will continue to have most of the continental shelf closed for years into the future."

"It's going to take generations," echoed Kline. "We are literally setting the table for people who have not been born yet."

For the average Californian, "The main impact ... is that they are going to find the California rockfish very scarce in stores and they can expect a higher price," said L.B. Boydstun, who represented the California Department of Fish and Game in the weeklong meetings here.

In addition to the rockfish, which are commonly sold in stores as Pacific snapper, officials predicted greatly reduced harvests of other bottom-dwelling varieties such as Petrale sole, English sole, starry flounder, turbot and sand dabs that share the same undersea territory as the rockfish.

"There will be less and less fresh fish from the West Coast and more and more fish from other sources," said Moore.

Moore, who represents the West Coast's 15 biggest fish-processing companies, said most of the replacement fish will come from Canada and Alaska but will also include farm-raised African tilapia from the Southeastern United States and Patagonian toothfish, commonly known as Chilean sea bass, from the southern oceans.

Uncertainty over the source of fish in stores is a concern to the San Francisco-based Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Assns.

"A consumer goes to the market and doesn't even know what species they are buying or where they came from," said Natasha Benjamin, who works for the trade organization's research institute, which is pushing to have fish labeled by place of origin, species and method of catch.

Though consumers will have to adjust to new fish in stores, the 500-boat, federally regulated fishing fleet along the Pacific coast will need to shrink by at least half.

In California, the livelihood of an additional 1,500 state-licensed fishermen who ply the coast is also in serious peril, as are the economies of such fishing-dependent communities as Fort Bragg, Eureka and Crescent City in Northern California. Those towns have already been hurt by the decline of the timber industry and loss of revenue from declining salmon runs.

After the federal regulations are set, state agencies are expected to establish similar rules. California's rules may in some cases exceed the federal standards.

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