Dive Dry with Dr. Bill

#328: Why We Need Marine Reserves, Part I: Baselines

Contrary to what some may think, I have nothing against fishing. Some of my best friends, including my son and several dive buddies, enjoy the activity. And some of my best meals (despite my poor cooking skills) have been from the sea. I used to own a fishing boat here in the early 1970's and would stock my freezer with sand dabs, rock cod and kelp bass. In the early and mid 1980's I even had a part interest in a salmon fishing boat out of Fort Bragg. I have fond memories of working with the Salmon Trollers Association and the California Department of Fish & Game to trap salmon up at Hollow Tree Creek in coast redwood country for nursery breeding stock. I have seen first hand the work of fishers as conservationists, and applaud it.

What I am not fond of is OVER fishing, fishing strictly for "sport" and trophies... and, especially, poaching. To make sure my definition is understood, "overfishing" does not mean fishing until the very last fish is caught as some seem to think. Overfishing is when a species is fished above a level that is sustainable. Los Angeles County has undergone exponential growth from 1880 until 2000, yet the fish and invertebrate populations of most species have actually declined during that period. This is a classic definition of overfishing, and one which will only get worse as our population continues to increase. I'm not a big fan of those who fish for trophy animals such as marlin. However, I also recognize that those anglers are not the ones devastating the species. That "Darwin award" would have to go to the huge factory ships off Mexico, mostly from other countries, that have been stopped with as many as 10,000 marlin carcasses in their hold at one time.

Catalina Island has been a fishing destination at least since the 1880's. The likes of local legends Zane Grey and Dr. Charles Frederick Holder, himself an ardent conservationist and angler, made Catalina a popular place to visit after the railroads improved service to the West Coast from the East. Later, veterans from World War II settled in southern California after the war thanks to its great climate, and fishing activity intensified as the population skyrocketed decimating the numbers of fish like the large bull kelp bass. Today many island residents enjoy hours out on the ocean, something we share in common, and bring home a yellowtail, a white sea bass or a few bonito or kelp bass for dinner. Several of my dive friends enjoy spearfishing or bug hunting, and if I'm lucky they share their catch with me.

Dr. Holder, a co-founder of the Tuna Club in 1898, saw the effects of fishing on our local habitats and fish stocks early on. He recognized that many fishing our waters for the largest black sea bass, or the most albacore (then having them dumped at sea for the sea lions to feed on), not to mention the mainland commercial boats, were already affecting our waters by the early 1900's. With other Tuna Club members, he established rules that would make fishing more sporting using gear known as light tackle, rather than the stout handlines often used earlier. Holder worked hard with the California State legislature to establish the first marine protected area in our waters in 1913. It encompassed the entire island out to the three mile limit, and allowed recreational but not commercial catch. Unfortunately not long after that, it was overturned due to intense lobbying by the commercial fishing interests.

Many today say that our fish stocks are fine. I contend in many cases they are dead wrong. Some state that marine reserves will destroy our economy. I contend that overfishing will destroy our economy. Marine reserves are a good path to avoiding that, and not establishing them will only accelerate things to the point of collapse. There are two "big picture" reasons why I say this. First, many anglers do not have the perspective of actually being immersed in the ecosystems that are supposed to support their target species. They do not have first hand knowledge of the condition of those ecosystems. As an ecologist, I can easily say that just like it takes a village (like Avalon!) to raise a child, it takes an ecosystem to raise a kelp bass, rockfish or white sea bass! It is important to protect not just the target species, but the entire ecosystem on which it relies... for habitat, for spawning grounds, for food, for cleaning by other species like senorita, and to provide other important ecological interactions.

The second reason I feel comfortable making such a statement is the concept of "shifting baselines." If your knowledge of Catalina waters only dates back a few years, you have one baseline against which to judge the health of its ecosystems. If, like me, you've been here 40 years, and have spent time both as a fisherman and an ecologist, you have a different and longer-term baseline. However, even that pales compared to some of the "old timers" I've talked with over the years who can remember what fishing was like back in the 20's and 30's. To take it another step back, read the stories by Holder and Zane Grey about what fishing was like here at the turn of the previous century. Going back even further in time where we have no firsthand knowledge or written accounts to gauge fishing stocks, we could imagine what our marine ecosystems were like back in the 1850's, or before the sea otters were decimated around the 1820's, or before even the Native Americans set foot on the island much further back. These are all different baselines against which to judge the health of today's ecosystems.

My point is that none of us, myself included, have a good baseline from which to judge the health of our marine ecosystems. I will venture an educated guess that about 120 years ago we had incredible stocks of fish in the surrounding waters. After all, that is what attracted Grey, Holder and many others to come here. Then, over the last twelve decades, we have brought many of these same stocks to far lower levels... with an increasing population fishing for them. Assuming I'm correct and many species have declined significantly, then the fishing effort around the island has not been sustainable. We have overfished the capacity of the ecosystem to renew what we take out each year. We have brought our ecosystems closer to potential collapse, just like some investment bankers and others have brought the economic system close to the brink through their own self-interest and lack of concern for the good of the country.

If our children and grandchildren are going to be able to enjoy days out on the ocean, whether they be fishing or taking pictures of marine life under the sea, I contend we will have to make significant changes in the way we manage our waters. Take for example the approach most common today. Seasons, quotas, gear restrictions and even closures are established for specific species based on our best estimates of the fish populations. Usually these are based on catch records and size distributions, rather than any rigorous scientific assessment. Often size limits are imposed which allow anglers and divers to take only the larger individuals, leaving only the young 'uns to grow. What we are now realizing is that such limits are counter productive for many species. Populations of longer lived fish which reproduce for many years have the biggest and best removed from their midst... the larger ones that actually have the highest reproductive potential to replenish those harvested. For example, a vermilion rockfish 24" long may produce 17 times the number of offspring than a 14" individual. Slot limits, where only fish between certain size limits are taken, is one species-specific mechanism that should have been employed years ago in management practices.

If I am right, we need new mechanisms to adequately address what I see as a serious long-term over fishing problem in our waters. No one person is guilty of creating this over fished state. The local fisher that goes out and catches a few kelp bass or a few bugs for dinner isn't the culprit. However, when you realize that Californians today enjoy over 30 million fishing days a year, the contribution of each individual adds to the numbers taken. Consider a mainland charter fishing boat, carrying up to 100 anglers each intent on catching their daily limit of 10 kelp and sand bass, and I think you can see the growing magnitude of the problem. In next week's column I will try to explain how true marine reserves, or no take zones, assembled into a network of protected areas will be necessary to ensure fish for to sustain our ecosystems... our fun... and our bellies!

© 2009 Dr. Bill Bushing. Watch the "Dive Dry with Dr. Bill" underwater videos on Catalina Cable TV channel 49, 10:00 AM and 5:00 PM weekdays and on Charter Communications Cable channel 33 at 7:30 PM on Tuesdays in the Riverside/Norco area. Please help me climb out of self-imposed poverty... buy my DVD's (see this link). Yes, take Dr. Bill home with you... we'll both be glad you did!

Overfishing is really a population problem: growth of Los Angeles County 1880-2000

This document maintained by Dr. Bill Bushing.
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