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ROCK THE MOTION CLUB SUING TO INVALIDATE PRESERVATION REGULATIONS.

Byline: Bill Becher Special to the Daily News

SAN LUIS OBISPO - A central California sport fishing club has sued the Department of Fish and Game to overturn the six-month closed season for rockfish in waters off California's coast, saying the new regulations are unnecessary and favor commercial fishermen.

The anglers want the court to invalidate the regulations and return bag and season limits to those in effect before September 2002. Rockfish includes a number of bottom dwelling fish species.

But government officials and commercial fisherman say the sport anglers aren't telling the whole truth and biologists say the regulations are necessary to protect severely depleted fish stocks.

The action, filed Jan. 23 in Superior Court in San Luis Obispo County by the Coastside Fishing Club, claims the regulations will ``... eviscerate nearshore sport fishing along California's coast, bankrupt those whose livelihood depends upon the recreational fishery, and unnecessarily and unfairly limit access to a public resource.''

``There is something very wrong when a child cannot fish from a pier but commercial fishermen can operate in those same waters,'' Coastside president Bob Franko said.

The lawsuit is also supported by the Recreational Fishing Alliance (RFA), an advocacy group for sport anglers, which includes commercial ``party boat'' operators and private boat anglers.

``We believe that the department has forgotten that the over 2 million sport recreational anglers are an important part of the state economy, and this state's $5 billion industry will be devastated by the recent moves of Fish and Game to remove recreational anglers from the water,'' RFA president Randy Fry said.

The suit claims the regulations contravene long-standing California policy to favor sport-fishing interests over commercial interests when fish populations are unable to satisfy both demands. But commercial fishermen and DFG officials are quick to point out that the vast majority of the allowable catch has been allocated to the recreational anglers.

According to Carrie Wilson, a marine biologist with the DFG, recreational fishermen received 80 percent of the total 2003 nearshore allotments. In the nearshore area, the commercial fishermen chose to take severely reduced catch limits in order to have a near year-round fishery until they reach their allocation.

Wilson said the recreational fishermen opted to retain a 10-rockfish bag limit for 2003 that reduced their season length to six months even though they were allocated 80 percent of the fish. A year-round recreational fishery would have required a bag limit of fewer than five fish per trip that party boat captains said would not attract enough anglers.

Zeke Grader, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, which represents commercial fishermen, said, ``The sport guys have got to be accurate in telling the public the whole truth and not just half the truth.''

He said the sport fishermen accepted the shorter season as a compromise and are now trying to back out of it.

``I think once a judge hears what happened they may get laughed out of court,'' Grader said.

The lawsuit also claims that no statistics are available from the DFG concerning the fish to be regulated, and the new regulations are designed to remedy a ``perception'' of overfishing. The sport anglers say the DFG has illegally surrendered regulation of state waters to the Pacific Fishery Management Council (PFMC), which advises the federal government on managing fisheries between three and 200 miles off the coast of California.

But officials say the federal and state authorities work in concert. The DFG is represented on the PFMC and has the authority to conform state regulations to the federal regulations for the commercial fishery. Federal regulators have pre-emptive authority if the state causes a conflict with the federal plan, said LB Boydson, a recently retired DFG biologist.

``All of the PFMC regulations were developed this past year under the leadership and concurrence of the DFG and the (California) Fish and Game Commission,'' Boydson said.

The sport anglers' suit claims that none of the rockfish are considered endangered or overfished.

According to the PFMC, seven species of rockfish including bocaccio, canary rockfish, cowcod, dark-blotched rockfish, Pacific ocean perch, widow rockfish and yelloweye rockfish have been officially declared overfished in recent years.

Bocaccio, sold as ``red snapper'' in markets, are now down to 4.8 percent of their unfished amount and would take 97 years to recover in the absence of all fishing, according to a June 2002 report by the National Marine Fisheries Service to the PFMC.

That report also said previous stock assessments were too optimistic and in hindsight bocaccio have been heavily overfished. The report recommended annual catches of bocaccio be reduced to a ``near-zero level.'' The report also said poor ocean conditions in the 1990's for spawning have contributed to the fishery's decline.

The sport anglers' lawsuit said the DFG admits anglers are seeing more bocaccio than ever.

Milton Love, a research biologist at UCSB, conducts fish surveys in are search submarine and is the author of two books on Pacific rockfish. He said the bocaccios anglers are seeing are young, immature fish and are not a sign of a healthy fish population.

``A very young female produces 20-30,000 eggs,'' Love said. ``A large, mature female might produce 2 million eggs. One of the keys to healthy stock is having a number of large adults around. If you don't have very many large fish it's a dangerous situation, and we found very few large bocaccio.''

Commercial and recreational fishermen do not think the data the scientists are coming up with is accurate and want more surveys, especially south of Point Conception. Biologists agree that stock assessments, typically done every three years, need to be undertaken more often, but funding has been a problem.

Another complication is that the overfished stocks are mixed in with more abundant fish, and the catch of depleted fish cannot be reduced sufficiently to meet rebuilding goals without reducing the catch of the healthy stocks, according to the DFG.

Love, who admits to having caught thousands of rockfish in Santa Monica Bay on party boats as a kid, said, ``I sympathize with the frustration of both the recreational and commercial industries.

``I think they find themselves in an untenable situation.''

CAPTION(S):

photo, chart

Photo:

(color) Anglers such as Everett Wilkes, left, and Trevor Butler have had to go to Baja California to fish for rockfish

Rochelle Kaplan/Special to the Daily News

Chart:

LOSING GROUND

Source: National Marine Fisheries Service
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Article Type:Statistical Data Included
Date:Jan 30, 2003
Words:1071
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