Fishing For Balance
Proposed legislation seeks sustainable fisheries.
Thursday, February 12, 1998
Proposed legislation now making its way through the state Senate could create a whole new approach to marine resource management in California. According to the Center for Marine Conservation (CMC), one of AB 1241''s supporters, the Marine Life Management Act seeks to "reform California''s antiquated and ineffective system of managing its living marine resources, [a system] that has led to overfishing of many California fisheries."
CMC and other supporters of the bill, sponsored by Assemblyman Fred Keeley, D-Boulder Creek, charge that the current system lacks sufficient resources and authority, and operates as a crisis management system, slashing or entirely cutting off fishing of particular species in response to serious population decline.
"Right now what happens a lot is that the authority isn''t as clear as it should be," says Rachel Saunders, of CMC''s Monterey field office. Consequently, the legislature ends up micromanaging the crises that result from the lack of long-term monitoring and planning.
The state legislature is called upon to take emergency measures when a particular species is overfished to crisis level. This was the case with abalone, for example, which is now subject to a statewide moratorium, says Saunders. Nothing is done, she says, until someone notices, "Oh my god, the abalone population is crashing, we have to do something." Then a bill is passed, she says, limiting or prohibiting future takes for the species in crisis.
The recurrent crises are a "wake-up call," says Saunders, indicating that "we have to get out ahead of the curve, and not wait for slashing [of catch limits] by the federal [or state] government, because that hurts fishermen and consumers alike. It''s a painful price [exacted] by not being more far-sighted."
Monterey Bay Aquarium Marine Science Advisor Dr. Steve Webster agrees there is a problem with overfishing, and a more sustainable, responsive approach to fishery management is necessary. "There are a number of fisheries in collapse or near collapse," says Webster. He cites abalone as one of the most well-known examples, but, he says, "There are others giving signs that they are on the way to collapse, showing declining catch levels even in the face of increased effort."
Some of the species that appear to be in danger are sea urchin, several rock fish species, salmon and the Pacific swordfish. In some of these cases, Webster says, "The handwriting has been on the wall for years." Yet in the abalone case, he says, "Nothing was done in time to turn it around until a couple of species of abalone were on the verge of extinction."
One of the main objectives of AB 1241 is to prevent these crises by developing a long-term, sustainable management plan. The existing system is "a relic" from the 19th century, "when California was first a state," says Assemblyman Keeley. "It was essentially a rural state at that time, and the job was to manage abundance," he says.
Things have indeed changed dramatically since current policies were enacted. "California is now the seventh largest economy in the world with 32.5 million people, and that management system has failed," says Keeley. "We''re now managing scarcity rather than abundance."
Failure to manage that scarcity sustainably could jeopardize the long-term health of the marine resource-related industries along with the living resources themselves. Recreational fishing is estimated to supply more than 153,000 jobs to Californians. Commercial fishing employs more than 20,000 people and ocean-dependent tourism generates nearly $10 billion in annual spending, according to a recent state study.
Keeley''s intent in promoting the legislation, he says, is to modernize the system and provide the policy framework and tools necessary to foster the well-being of all those involved: the commercial and recreational fishing industries, the tourism industry, consumers and, above all, the marine ecosystems themselves. "I wanted to introduce a bill that would put a 21st-century model together for managing fisheries in a scientific and sustainable way, so that we can leave our marine resources in better shape than we found them," says Keeley.
The bill cleared the state Assembly two weeks ago, passing its first committee vote by an 8-2 margin, and will now start its way through the Senate where proponents expect changes will be made.
Among those supporting the bill are the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen''s Associations, the United Anglers, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Sierra Club.
There is some opposition, but even one of the active opponents of the bill, the California Fisheries and Seafood Institute (CFSI), is "with Keeley in concept," but just differ on some of the specifics, says CFSI''s Rob Ross.