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Sportfishing Blamed in Depletion

Calling for more limits, a new study says recreational anglers catch nearly 25% of overfished coastal stock.

August 27, 2004|Kenneth R. Weiss | Times Staff Writer

Sportfishermen have a much larger role in depleting ocean fish than previously thought, catching nearly a quarter of the overfished species in U.S. coastal waters and about 59% of severely depleted rockfish off the Pacific Coast, a new study shows.

The study, which scrutinized 22 years of fishing statistics for the journal Science, shines the spotlight on recreational fishermen, who have long blamed commercial fishermen for the severe decline in the ocean fish populations off America's shores.

To help stocks recover, the authors say, sportfishing will have to face more severe restrictions. The government, they say, may have to limit the number of people who are allowed to fish for sport in the ocean, just as it restricts commercial fishermen at sea and recreational hunters on land.

"All we are saying is that recreational fishing can no longer be ignored," said Felicia C. Coleman, the study's lead author and marine ecologist at Florida State University. "At first the restrictions are going to be awfully painful. But recreational fishing is extremely important, a huge industry, and we would like to see it sustained."

Coauthor Larry Crowder, a biologist at the Duke University Marine Laboratory, said the problem was one of cumulative effect.

"The fisherman who makes a few trips a year and catches a few fish says, 'I'm not the problem.' That's true," Crowder said. "But there are 10.5 million recreational fishermen, and their catch of millions and millions of fish becomes a problem."

An earlier study showed that recreational fishing pressure had surged 20% in the last decade. And the researchers say that unlike the Norman Rockwell image of a boy equipped with a hook and a worm on a bamboo pole, an increasing number of anglers have boats loaded with high-tech gear: fish-finding sonar and GPS devices that increase their ability to home in on fish congregating around rocks and reefs. The fish, they say, no longer have anyplace to hide.

Mike Sissenwine, director of scientific programs for the National Marine Fisheries Service, said the study accurately reflected his agency's statistics. But, he said, "I think the paper is based on a false premise: [that] somehow fishery managers are overlooking recreational fishing because they think their catch is insignificant."

Sissenwine said state and federal regulators have imposed many regulations on recreational fishing, some specifically to cover overfished species.

Mike Nussman, president of the American Sportfishing Assn., dismissed the paper as "an effort to try to pin something on recreational fishing." He said the study's conclusions were obvious. "In some species, we catch a significant portion of the catch. It's like, well, duh."

He also took issue with the authors' contention that traditional recreational fishing regulations -- restricting the size that can be caught of a particular species, limiting the number that can be taken home or shortening fishing seasons -- were incapable of resuscitating fish stocks.

"I'd be the last one to say we don't need to do a better job to manage our ocean resources," Nussman said. "But there are lots of tools out there that work just fine."

The study comes as California Resources Secretary Mike Chrisman is about to relaunch plans to develop a rarely used tool to help fish recover: establishing no-fishing zones along the state's coast to protect marine life and habitat.

The program was suspended earlier this year because of budget shortfalls. At a state Fish and Game Commission meeting today, Chrisman plans to outline a $500,000 state program to be supplemented by $2 million in donations from charitable groups that want the state to follow the 1999 law mandating a network of near-shore protected areas.

"The governor is committed to it, to protecting and supporting our oceans," Chrisman said.

He said former Democratic Assemblyman Phil Isenberg will lead a panel that will help propose the first set of near-shore reserves somewhere off Monterey and San Luis Obispo counties by March 2006.

Proposals for marine reserves, which now cover less than 1% of U.S. waters, are anathema to the recreational fishing industry, whose leaders hate the idea of making some ocean areas off limits to fishing indefinitely.

To explain why they should be exempt from closures, recreational fishing lobbyists often cite a federal statistic that recreational fishing accounts for only 2% of the total U.S. saltwater catch.

Study coauthor Coleman and three other researchers decided to examine that figure and other fishing statistics. With a $240,000 grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts, they figured out that the recreational catch actually averaged about 5% over the last two decades.

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