Area fishing industry in decline

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Posted by on August 22, 2005 at 09:40:33:

Strict regulations, high costs make commerical fishermen dying breed

Pete Dupuy, 69, a salty, third-generation fisherman, for years sank gill nets off Ventura County shores to corral bountiful schools of swordfish and tuna before state regulations forced him to abandon the practice.

So Dupuy took up long, weighted lines with baited hooks. The technique of long-lining, however, was outlawed; officials say the hooks snag protected turtles, though Dupuy claims his lines have never done so. The Ventura resident switched to trawling, but he can't do that anymore, either. Some rockfish species are endangered. Today, he has $50,000 worth of trawling equipment in storage.

"This will be the first year my vessels will be tied up," he said. "I can't afford to fish anymore. There's too much overhead. Regulators have cut down where we can fish and how we can fish. "

Increasingly stringent environmental and fishing regulations, coupled with surging fuel costs, dock fees and growing ranks of marine mammals eating their catch have some fishermen worried their final casts are near.

Most professionals earn low wages in an industry beset by declining fish prices, overfished waters and shortened fishing seasons.

The creation of a vast marine sanctuary around the Channel Islands has restricted fishing access to local anglers who make their living in the Santa Barbara Channel.

The cumulative effect has taken a toll. In the past 10 years, the number of commercial fishermen stationed at Ventura County's commercial piers -- Channel Islands Harbor and Ventura Harbor -- has dropped nearly 35 percent, mirroring a statewide decline, state officials say.

In 1995, the state issued 10,000 commercial fishing licenses; Today, there are fewer than 6,500 -- and many commercial fishermen say the number is inflated by sport and other fishermen who keep licenses but rarely use them. The state does not keep county-by-county totals.

With trawling no longer allowed for some fish species, fishermen have switched to more labor-intensive traps -- this in an industry long considered the most dangerous profession by the U.S. Department of Labor.

"Today's fishermen have to be far more sophisticated than their predecessors," California Fish and Game biologist Marci Yaremko said. "They can't just know how to fish, they have to stay on top of increasingly complex rules, which can, and often do, change monthly."

Increased regulations

Ventura Harbor still ranks in the top 10 of busiest fishing piers in the state, with more than 17.4 million pounds of fish landed last year, overwhelmingly squid. It was worth about $5.42 million.

But catch levels and types of fish caught are likely to change, scientists claim, pointing to recent regulatory and legislative management actions and declines in some fish stocks.

For example, there are 10 no-take marine protected areas off the northern Channel Islands, making 15 percent of island waters now closed to any form of fishing.

In addition, a harvest moratorium to restore the valuable abalone fishery, federal closures to rebuild a large cowcod breeding ground, and strict limits on the take of many Continental Shelf and near-shore fish species have dramatically reduced fishing opportunities, according to University of California researchers at the Ventura-based Sea Grant Extension Program.

"They are getting squeezed everywhere," said Jack Peveler, longtime harbor master at Channel Islands Harbor in Oxnard, which has two offloading wharfs. "The days of commercial fishermen freely fishing where they want are over, and with all these new rules comes a certain amount of confusion, which also brings a lot of fear."

Commercial fishing in Ventura remains a largely hidden, if not overlooked, segment of the county's economy. The last time fishermen got any real publicity was when commercial squid boats helped scour debris fields of an Alaska Airlines jetliner that plunged into the Pacific Ocean in January 2000. The crash killed all 88 on board.

"We don't really track the commercial fishing industry," said Darlene Ruz, vice president of the Ventura County Economic Development Association, an advocate for business and industry.

The price at the dock has declined, fishermen and buyers say, as the seafood market has become internationalized.

"We have become importers," said Michael Wagner, president and CEO of Andria's Seafood Specialties, which owns Andria's Seafood Restaurant & Market at the Ventura Harbor. "We buy what little we can get locally, as opposed to us turning down guys 10 years ago."

The store's halibut comes from Mexico, the angel shark from Argentina, with other delicacies from Indonesia and Canada, Wagner said.

As a result, commercial fishermen are trying to sell more of their catch directly to consumers, some even working with marketing interests and economists, said Chris Mobley, manager of the Channel Islands Marine Sanctuary. The key is to educate consumers that what is being caught locally is as good in quality as anything foreign, he said.

"They are trying to be a little smarter about cornering the industry," Mobley said. "Right now, fishermen are forced to sell cheap at the dock. The system currently benefits fish processors, distributors and retail markets."

Fuel costs increasing

Chris Hoeflinger of Newbury Park has been fishing most of his life. The 44-year-old, a member of the Ventura County Fishermen's Association, says he's never seen costs so high.

The dockage fee to store a 50-foot boat at Ventura Harbor is nearly $500 a month.

"In San Pedro, I pay $65 a month," he said. At Channel Island Harbor, the dock rate just went up to $7 a foot.

At the same time, special diesel fuel their boats rely on is at near-record highs -- some $3 a gallon.

"My fuel cost is scary," said Terry Wilmarth, a halibut and sea bass specialist who estimates he spends more than $1,100 a month on fuel. He now motors slower and takes shorter trips to save money.

Wilmarth laments another threat to his catch -- a growing marine mammal population. Thousands of protected sea lions and harbor seals live off the Channel Islands.

"These animals hunt our gear down, find the buoys, run the length of the net and take the fish right out," Wilmarth said. "It's pretty frustrating to be out fishing, knowing you are going to bring up nothing but heads."

Federal dollars may disappear

Harbor masters say that if the industry fades, so too does the opportunity to obtain federal dollars to pay for annual dredging at the harbors' entrances, something the harbors could never pay for alone.

"The existence of the Ventura Harbor is dependent on the commercial fishing industry," Operations Manager Scott Miller said. The harbor received $1.4 million from the federal government for dredging last year.

"When they are evaluating whether to allocate those funds, they don't place any value on the recreational aspects of the harbor," he said.

The harbor pier's concrete deck has deteriorated to where it is likely to require $800,000 to $1 million in resurfacing or replacement costs, Miller said. Ventura Port District officials are now weighing what to do and have hired scientists to try to give them some sense of future infrastructure needs.

Fisherman Jason Woods says a Saturday morning fishermen's market at the harbor could be better promoted as a tourist and fresh fish destination, something that not only would benefit local anglers but also the local economy.

"A lot of people don't see us as a legitimate industry," said Woods, 34, of Oak View.

Dupuy agrees. Low wages and weak profits don't bode well for the industry's future.

"You are not going to see a lot of young guys who will go into the commercial fishing industry," he said. "This is a dying breed, and once us old guys go, we're not going to be replaced."

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