Monterey Harbormaster pushes to re-open Monterey Bay’s halibut fishery.
Thursday, February 4, 2010
Jiri Nozicka skims his knife over the spine of a slimy petrale sole. The catch is fresh from the San Giovanni, the vessel on which he’s co-skipper, now docked at Royal Seafoods – his father-in-law Giuseppe Pennisi’s company – on Monterey’s Wharf II.
When the subject of the bay’s closure to halibut trawling comes up, Nozicka bundles up the fillets and starts lamenting. “It reduced our income,” he says in a light Czech accent. “Now you don’t have no local supply of halibut whatsoever.”
For decades, fishermen have trawled the bay during summer halibut season, when the shallow, sandy-bottomed estuaries are calm enough to attract the fast-moving flatfish. But SB 1459, a state law that limits trawling along the California coast, shut down the local halibut fishery in 2006 (two years after the law was passed, due to some confusion about its application to the bay).
Now Monterey Harbormaster Steve Scheiblauer, with backing from fishermen like Nozicka, is proposing legislation to re-open the halibut trawl fishery in a limited part of the bay: in state waters, beyond three miles offshore and to a depth of 40 fathoms, except in marine protected areas.
“We’re just opening this up for discussion and trying to get some steam behind it,” he says. “The word ‘trawling’ has become alarming. It’s time to begin nuancing.”
Scheiblauer’s group has asked Assemblyman Bill Monning (D-Carmel) to carry the proposed legislation on their behalf. Monning is interested but stops short of endorsing the idea, saying he’ll likely introduce a “spot bill” as a placeholder for more developed legislation.
“At this point, my commitment is to try to get interested parties to a table and have a science-based approach,” he says. “To have sustainable fisheries, we also need to strive to have sustainable fishing communities. But [trawling] is a loaded word, and that’s why I’m encouraging a deliberate and studied approach.”
Ocean conservationists are likewise hesitant. Although bottom-trawled California halibut is on the Seafood Watch “good alternative” list, Monterey Bay Aquarium spokesman Ken Peterson says the economic benefits of re-opening the bay to trawling should be carefully weighed against habitat costs.
“Bottom trawling is one of the more destructive fishing methods out there,” he says. “That said, there are some kinds of trawling that are less traumatic. We would not be supportive of opening trawling in Monterey Bay at this point, unless the administrative process established under current state law assured it was not damaging to habitats needed by other marine life.”
Seafood Watch considers California halibut vulnerable to overfishing, and dragging trawl doors can disturb seafloor habitats.
But back at Royal Seafood, Nozicka describes the latest “light touch” trawling gear: nets that float just above the seafloor at a shallow depth, allowing fishermen to throw bycatch back alive.
Today the closest commercial halibut fishing is in Santa Barbara, he says, and the vast majority of the state’s seafood is imported. He describes a regulatory environment that keeps most of California’s productive waters off-limits, decimates the ranks of Central Coast commercial fishing boats and makes it hard to support his family.
As he talks, his wife Elizabeth Pennisi-Nozicka – an organizer with People United for American Commercial Fisheries – joins him behind the counter, and their young son buries his face in Nozicka’s knees.
He wipes off thick hands stained from a life of fishing work. “If this is not defined as a sustainable fishery,” he asks, “what is?”
CORRECTED 2/7/10: This article originally noted "Pacific halibut is on the Seafood Watch 'best choice' list." The species in Monterey Bay is California halibut; if caught with bottom trawling, it is on the Seafood Watch "good alternative" list.