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Sudden groundfish closure angers Oregon charter industry.

Byline: Winston Ross The Register-Guard

FLORENCE - It's become a familiar pattern for the Oregon Coast fishing industry: Regulators close a fishery. Skippers cry foul. Coastal economy reels.

But this week's unprecedented decision to end the season early for sport groundfishing is actually an indicator that after decades of depleted stocks, groundfish appear to be experiencing a rebound. That's partly because of favorable ocean conditions and partly because of fishing closures.

The fish are doing so well that just about anyone can hop on a charter boat and expect to catch the limit, charter operators say. As word spread and this summer's weather served up gentle sailing conditions, that's exactly what plenty of people have done - catching hundreds of tons of black rockfish, lingcod and greenling. Fishing trips along the coast are up 15 percent over last year's total of 8,765 during the same period, according to the state Department of Fish & Wildlife.

But this success - combined with the impacts of a conservation system that fishermen call deeply flawed - ultimately led to a surprising announcement. For the first time, Fish & Wildlife will shut down the sport fishery for major groundfish species on Friday - just before the Labor Day weekend, one of the biggest fishing holidays of the year.

The decision was based on numbers: By this past Sunday, sport fishermen had landed 334 metric tons of rockfish - known to most consumers as red snapper - and more than 108 metric tons of lingcod. That's only 8 tons from the rockfish limit and 2 tons from the lingcod cap.

When fishery managers realized that the fleet was about to bust its quotas, they called an emergency meeting. They considered a host of options, including just closing the two species of groundfish that were nearing their limits. But rockfish can't be caught and released because they have sensitive air bladders that can kill them if they're brought out of depths greater than 60 feet. So regulators decided to end the season for all groundfish species.

"The big question was `Can we make it through Labor Day?' ' said Patty Burke, who manages Fish & Wildlife's marine resources program.

But the fishery was simply too close to the limit, so managers decided to make Friday the last day. Area fishermen were outraged, partly because the short notice means that they'll be working the phones all week canceling trips.

"It's putting a lot of sport businesses out of work," said Lee Estabrook, who charter fishes out of Newport on his boat, the Blue Pacific. "It will probably reduce our business by 50 percent."

And it's not just fishermen who worry about the impacts. Charter trips - which account for 75 percent of the catch - bring tourism dollars to the coast, pouring money into hotels, restaurants and other businesses that supply the fishing fleet. Numbers for the groundfish fleet are hard to come by since many boats also go after tuna and salmon, but there are 91 charter boats licensed on the coast, 68 of which primarily hunt groundfish.

"We have so few jobs, and they're all based in natural resources," said Lincoln County Commissioner Terry Thompson, a former commercial groundfisherman. "This is just another whack."

What Estabrook and others find maddening is that they're catching more fish because there seem to be a lot more fish in the ocean, at least by anecdotal estimates.

"We can go out and catch our limit on black rockfish in an hour or two. There's not a shortage of black rockfish. So why would they shut it down?" Estabrook said. "Tell me why?"

Because that's the way the system works, Burke said. Groundfish stocks are assessed based on a complicated formula that factors in the numbers that fishermen have caught in recent years, how old the fish are and how much they weigh.

But the data for this year's quotas are from 2002, when some say the fishery was only beginning to rebound. And the fishery is much more complicated than the allocation system can take into account.

"This is a system that's very simplistic in its management tools," Burke said. "The federal law that regulates these fisheries and the state law that has to line up behind it don't recognize that we have a mixed stock, which is highly interdependent. It doesn't recognize when there is a recovery going on in the fishery, people are going to start catching more. We don't recognize that is an appropriate result. We keep the limits low."

Furthermore, the actual limits themselves are based on the weight the fleet brings in - 342 tons for black rockfish, for example. When fish get bigger - as they did this year - fishermen are forced to catch fewer of them to stay under the limit. In 1995, the average groundfish weighed less than 2 pounds. Now it's more than 2.5 pounds. With hundreds of thousands of fish caught, those extra 8 ounces have a big impact.

"I need to get a camera out on the boat and let people see how much fish are out there," said Margery Whitmer, who owns the Betty Kay, a 50-foot charter boat that sails out of Charleston. "People are losing their livelihood."

Another problem, fishermen say, is that they're paying for the commercial fleet's impacts. This season, for example, Fish & Wildlife banned groundfishing in waters deeper than 40 fathoms - about 3 miles offshore - to reduce bycatch of overfished species, which was largely the result of commercial fishing. But the restriction meant both sport and commercial fishermen had to rely on the nearshore catch.

"They crowded us all in the shallows," Whitmer said.

That decision took charter fishermen such as Scott Howard out of the groundfish game. He runs Strike Zone Charters in Winchester Bay, where there are no reefs in water shallower than 40 fathoms.

"I've been closed all summer for rockfish," Howard said. "We were just swept under the rug, but now that they've closed the nearshore, I guess it's a bigger issue. Now everybody is in the same boat I've been in all summer."

On the bright side, there's still a healthy salmon season thriving on the Oregon Coast, which probably will help businesses weather the early groundfish closure. Fishermen also will turn to tuna and halibut fishing, they say.

Next year, Burke said, the agency may consider changing the start date for the sport groundfish season or cutting back on the amount of fish that individuals can catch per day to stretch the season out more. To give fishermen more notice, the department may start posting groundfish catch numbers on the state's Web site.

Still, Burke acknowledged, "This is a huge economic impact to coastal communities."
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Title Annotation:Environment; Anglers have caught so many fish that the state has decided to end the season just before the Labor Day Weekend
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Sep 1, 2004
Previous Article:Insurer to the poor defends practices.

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