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Chasing the wild past

Off San Pedro's coast, a small fleet is back catching sardines the way fishermen did generations ago.

October 15, 2003|Russ Parsons | Times Staff Writer

The night is overcast, obscuring the stars and turning the Pacific black and glassy as the Endurance works its way south from San Pedro. Half a mile away, the lights of Huntington Beach twinkle. Pretty as they are, it's another kind of light Vince Lauro is looking for. Lauro is skipper of the 57-foot fishing boat and, since this is fall, he's hunting for sardines.

What he's looking for specifically is the warm milky glow of bioluminescent plankton, microscopic sea creatures that, when alarmed, give off light. And there's little that scares them more than schools of sardines, which occupy the rung just above them on the food chain. For centuries, fishermen have looked for this same light to find fish.

"Over there," Lauro says, pointing aft. "Do you see it?" It takes a minute for the eyes to adjust, but there it is, like underwater heat lightning.

Lauro is one of the last of the San Pedro sardine fishermen, and while all fishermen have to deal with the vicissitudes of the sea and of public taste, sardine fishermen have an additional burden -- the fish itself. Periodically, sardines simply vanish -- sometimes for decades at a time.

Today the fish that were once feared to be gone forever are back in very healthy numbers, especially in the fall and winter months when the Southern California season peaks. Furthermore, they're even bordering on the trendy -- something the old-timers have a hard time adjusting to. Now, it's the fishermen who are nearly extinct.

The crew of the Endurance isn't going without a fight. On this warm October night, clad in brightly colored slickers, they take their places along the back of the boat and ready the net. One clambers into the 17-foot skiff that rides piggyback atop the stern of the larger boat.

Setting the net is the key to sardine fishing. It's not a matter of "drop it and they will come." The wily fish never will. And neither can a fishing boat towing a net speed through the ocean, scooping up everything in its way. These fish are fast, able to outrun any boat. They have to be hunted and trapped.

The mark of a good skipper is how well he can do this. It's not unusual for a boat to spend an hour or more on top of a school of fish, the captain waiting until he's absolutely certain he knows where the fish are and which direction they're heading before he commits to releasing the net.

Finally Lauro shouts "Molla!" -- Italian for "Let it go" -- and the crew bursts into action. The skiff slides off the back, anchoring one end of the net. Lauro shoves the throttle forward and the boat rears as it accelerates, cutting a tight turn.

In less than a minute, the Endurance bumps against the skiff, the circle of the net complete. Lauro rushes to the rail and begins to curse explosively. There's no light in the center. He runs to the other side: There it is, dashing away. It doesn't look good; the fish are so fast they swim away clean under the boat.

The crew hauls in the net, working carefully in case the dire predictions are wrong. First they tighten the heavy line, cinching the purse closed at the bottom. Then they retrieve the cork line, shrinking the floating circle. A pair of seals appears out of nowhere and takes turns diving over the net to filch what fish they can.

A power winch does most of the heavy lifting these days, but it can only do so much. The crew still must gather at the net and grasp it in a cold wet embrace as the winch is reset. It takes a half-hour of backbreaking labor before the equipment is back aboard. The reward? A half-dozen spiny sculpin and a couple of sardines.

Lauro tries to make a joke but it sounds forced through clenched teeth. "That's why they call it fishing and not catching."

The Latin name of the Pacific sardine is Sardinops sagax, which can be loosely translated as "the wily sardine." It is a peculiarly vexing fish, the population of which ebbs and floods like the tide (Atlantic sardines are actually either pilchards or juvenile herring, called sprats).

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It's feast or famine

In the early part of the 20th century, sardines were so plentiful there seemed to be no bottom to the supply. In 1937, California fishermen caught more than 700,000 tons. A little more than a decade later, the fish began to disappear and, by the mid-1960s, the total catch for the entire West Coast was less than 1,000 tons.

Just as folks were beginning to talk about sardines being fished to the brink of extinction, they returned. By 1992, there were nearly 18,000 tons caught in California. And in 2001, the last year for which statistics are available, state fishermen took more than 50,000 tons for the third season in a row.

It turns out that's just the way the fish are. Analyzing fossilized scales found in sediment in the Santa Barbara Basin, scientists found that over the last 1,700 years sardines have regularly disappeared from the sea and just as regularly returned. In that span there have been nine major cycles of population collapse and recovery.

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