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Fishermen Long to See Limits Relaxed

Restrictions designed to protect rockfish are changing a way of life in Morro Bay, residents say.

August 04, 2003|John Johnson | Times Staff Writer

MORRO BAY — You'd think the people of this coastal town best known for the big rock dominating the landscape would be cheering and hoisting celebratory beers over at the Harbor Hut.

Despite fears that drastic government limits on rock fishing would cause economic devastation, the crisis never materialized. Bed and sales taxes were down just enough to make Chamber of Commerce types grumpy. The city had to consider delaying work on some of its more jaw-rattling streets. But that was pretty much it.

"There was an effect," said Rodger Anderson, a former mayor who owns the Galley restaurant on the waterfront. "Was it huge? Not really."

Now the tourists are back, kayaks ply the bay amid frolicking seals, fishing boats bring back their limits and the restaurants are packed with refugees from the San Joaquin Valley's long run of 100-plus-degree days.

So why are local politicians and businesspeople walking up and down the Embarcadero with long faces? The reason is that, although the fishing restriction did not empty their pocketbooks, it did something far more damaging. It tore a hole in the town's identity.

Morro Bay's commercial and recreational fishermen have long dealt with limitations on what fish they can catch and when. But the gravity of the most recent curbs, aimed at preserving overfished stocks of rock cod, convinced a lot of people that there is no future in what has long been the town's trademark enterprise.

"Fishing is the industry of this town," said Ed Biagginni, who operates the Embarcadero Inn downtown. "Take away those boats and what have you got?"

Lex Budge, owner of the upscale Windows on the Water restaurant, can answer that question. "Newport Beach," he sniffed. "That is something Morro Bay definitely does not want to become."

It's not that there's anything wrong with boutique tourist meccas. But people here say that's just not Morro Bay, where crashing waves are a meal ticket, not just a soundtrack for elegant shopping and dining.

The community is so proud of its long association with fishing, both commercial and recreational, that it reserves leases right in the heart of downtown for fishing-related businesses.

Unlike towns that consider hulking trawlers and big spools of red netting to be eyesores, Morro Bay reserves its docks for fishing boats. Shapely sailboats anchor out in the bay.

Fishermen Sue State

When local fishermen decided to sue the state over the fishing restrictions imposed last year, the city leadership and scores of others paid $100 a plate to raise money for the suit. And when they ran out of tri-tip, a restaurateur rushed over to his place of business and cooked up a dozen New York steaks for free.

Of course, what would you expect in a city where the mayor is a commercial fisherman?

"We have resolutions going back many years that commercial fishing is our No. 1 priority," said William Yates, 55, who fishes for albacore, salmon and Dungeness crab. "We stand behind those guys."

Times being what they are, there are fewer and fewer of those guys to stand behind. Joe Giannini Jr. of Giannini's Marine Supply, estimated that the local fleet was down at least half from its glory days of more than 100 boats.

"We used to make really good money," said Tom Hafer, who has fished for 32 years. "Two years ago, we had a year-round fishery." This year, with restrictions on spot prawns and rockfish, he got 29 days in.

During the good times, a fisherman like Hafer made up to $100,000 a year. Hafer's wife, Sherri, said their income will be cut 50% to 75% this year. The couple have three children, the oldest a boy, 13.

"I wouldn't encourage my son to fish," Hafer said.

Not only are fishermen leaving the business, but the infrastructure supporting the marine industry is fracturing.

There once were four sportfishing landings in Morro Bay. Now there's one.

There were eight fish processors. Now, the biggest one remaining brings in fish from Mexico. A local ice plant is ceasing operations.

After rules were passed closing most of the rocky reefs on the continental shelf off the Central and Southern California coasts to rock fishing, Virg's Landing laid off most of its workers and sold one of its boats.

"The whole system is collapsing," said Barbara Stickel, who is going back to school to learn a new trade because fishing is no longer dependable.

While Stickel seeks work, her husband continues to earn his living on the water. But restrictions on the near-shore fish population forced him to head for the deep sea, as much as 50 miles offshore.

"He goes alone, which is really dangerous," his wife said.

In most ways, the city today is in a good position to adjust to a prettified existence as another coastal town offering beachwear, whale-watching trips and big ice cream cones.

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