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Something's fishy Here

Just how many fish swim our
coastal waters? Area fishermen
say plenty, while the Department of
Fish and Game says it hasn’t the slightest idea.
It was time for someone to sue someone.

The California State Constitution says Fish and Game must do appropriate research before placing restrictions on fishing. They have not.

A lawsuit brought about by the Central Coast Fisheries Conservation Coalition, Virg’s Landing Inc., and Patriot Sport Fishing Inc. proved it.
The lawsuit is aimed at allowing sport fishermen the chance to fish before the last July 1 starting point. The fishermen sued, claiming they were not allowed to fish for rockfish the first six months of last year and that Fish and Game had no right to place that restriction on them.

Melvin A. De La Motte, the attorney for the fishermen, said in court that Fish and Game officials admitted they had no evidence, no documentation, and no surveys to back up their restrictions.

“After we filed, [Fish and Game] got the federal government to copy the state law, verbatim, and pass it as federal law. When we came to the hearing, they said, ‘Judge, it doesn’t make a difference what you rule on this, you have no power or jurisdiction to nullify a federal law.”
That stopped the fishermen in their tracks. An appeal is pending. De La Motte said it’s important to stay on the case to protect future seasons, but Fish and Game still hasn’t done any research.

Even Marija Vojkavich admits as much. Vojkavich is the Fish and Game’s Southern California Regional Manager and Offshore Ecosystem Coordinator, and is also a representative of Fish and Game to the Pacific Fishery Management Council.

“At this stage we haven’t done any formal assessments [of the 19 near-shore rock fish],” said Vojkavich. “We’ve been managing on a policy that looks at recent catches and then, to be precautionary, we cut that in half and say, ‘Only half of what you’ve been doing in the past you can do now.’ That’s how we’ve been managing because we don’t have stock assessments. It’s a shot in the dark but it’s a precautionary way to go.”
Marine Biologist Terry Lilley has a better idea. A 1980 graduate of Cal Poly, the former professional surfer and current professional reptile captive breeder has some information that Fish and Game should be able to use. He’s tried to show it to them, but he says they want nothing to do with it.
“I’ve got five years of great science, it’s better than anyone else has, but Fish and Game doesn’t want to know the answers. They want to control the information for their own reasons. They don’t even want to see the survey.”

Lilley has been counting fish almost every day for five years. He said he just wanted to go out and find an answer to a simple question: Could Fish and Game be wrong? Are there really more fish than they know about? Lilley especially wanted to know about the lingcod, which had been “overfished.”
Lilley started his survey in Cayucos at a surf spot called Killers, and worked his way south. Each day he surveyed an area of ocean that’s about 400 yards wide and 200 yards out. It takes him about four to five hours each day. After five years of three to five surveys a week, he’s made his way down to Avila Beach—logging every fish he’s caught and taking pictures of most.

Lilley gets in his 12-foot blue kayak and starts trolling for baitfish in about 5 feet of water. He uses a kayak for a variety of reasons—it’s extremely maneuverable and can get to places where a regular boat can’t, and it’s stealthy, so the fish aren’t freaked by it.

His path is a grid-work pattern that’s modeled closely after land surveys he’s conducted on red-legged frogs and other animals. He said that’s the only way to conduct a scientific count of any animal.

If he catches baitfish, great; if not, he uses frozen anchovies because all fish will eat them. He works his way straight out—sometimes to 60 feet of water, sometimes deeper—and fishes. He then works his way back toward shore and repeats the pattern out and back. After three or four hours, he’s done. His survey is a simple, inexpensive way to count what fish are in a small near-shore area.

“I’ve caught over 300 lingcod—a predator fish. They are so plentiful that the population is actually exploding, but no one else has bothered to do any type of legitimate survey.”

Lilley said his results are not showing what the public was led to believe:
“The regulations are not beneficial, they’re not realistic and they’re not going to do their intended purpose. They’re only going to damage people.”
Lilley said when he began his survey in Cayucos, only 9 percent of his catch was lingcod. Now that fish is 46 percent of his total catch. He said during a survey done on Aug. 29, two people caught 11 lingcod, 28 bolina rock cod (all legal size), and three other rock cod. Even he admitted that was a high count for one day, as he averages about two lingcod and five bolina each day throughout the entire five years.

The lingcod is a protected fish. It is also a ferocious predator. Lilley said they eat anything that moves (including body parts), and protecting them could decimate the local reefs, not to mention the sea otter population.
Like any fisherman, he is allowed to keep two lings that are of legal size. He dissects them to find out more, and he has found baby sea otters in their bellies. He said Fish and Game needs to put effort and money into its research before it places any more restrictions on fish.

“If I go out every day and catch five to 10 fish in a relatively small area in four hours … put that in a statistical arena. The chances of me catching a fish in that one grid are next to nil unless there’s a half a million fish in that grid. Now take all the grids out to 125 feet along the Central Coast, and you’ll have a figure that shows there are more fish than anyone ever dreamed of. Every fisherman on the planet could convene on California and couldn’t overfish them. There’s too much habitat.”

Darby Neil, owner of Virg’s Sport Fishing in Morro Bay, agrees. He’s been fishing local waters since his grandfather owned the business, and he said there’s more lingcod now than when he was a kid.

“If you want to catch lingcod, we’ll go out and catch 99 percent lingcod, because I know how to catch them. That’s why Fish and Game needs to assess the species instead of just looking at what we catch.”

Lilley said his survey has answered his questions. He’s confident in his science and believes Fish and Game should be at least interested in his results. The local recreational fishermen back his survey as well, and agree that everyone should be interested in acquiring more science.

Lilley himself knows that his survey is not enough to change the industry.
“This survey is only one one-hundredth of what needs to be done. And I also won’t say this is the absolute way it should be done. I want everybody that’s got some input to say, ‘How about this, maybe it would work better this way.’ That’d be great.”

Now it seems Fish and Game is getting on board.
Earlier this year—because of major disgruntlement from the fishing industry—the federal Pacific Fishery Management Council conducted an assessment on the black rockfish. The fish were considered overfished and depleted, but the assessment results showed the stock was very healthy.
Vojkavich said because of the healthy assessment, fishermen could expect to gain almost double the amount of allowable catch. The same may be true with Cabazon.

In mid-September the PFMC will unveil their assessment of the Cabazon. Fish and Game contributed to the assessment. At press time, Tom Barnes, senior biologist with Fish and Game, said it was too early to predict the outcome of that assessment but it shows a growing trend—Fish and Game is becoming more interested in the research end of their fishing management.

He said Fish and Game has a firm plan to do the next near-shore stock assessment on Sheephead, a southern species of rockfish. It will be a joint assessment between Fish and Game and UC Santa Cruz. The results of that assessment should be through a peer review by next July.

Other plans in the future call for doing more intensive near-shore trap surveys. In a fish trap survey, traps are used because the mortality rate is lower while still providing a viable way to count the fish. The idea is still just a concept, but over a number of years it would provide a statistically valid result of the amount of fish in an area.

David A. VenTresca is an associate marine biologist and has been a scuba diver with Fish and Game for too many years for him to count. He said he thinks independent surveys like Lilley’s are great, but at this point with Fish and Game financial resources so limited they can’t use them.
“We do not have the internal structure to digest that information,” said VenTresca.

He has been given a task that is called a Cooperative Fisherman’s Survey. While still in its early stages, the survey is done by getting all kinds of information from fishermen—not just catch report logbooks, but using the ingrained knowledge that comes from spending every day on the ocean. It’s similar to Lilley’s survey.

The survey entails asking the fishermen about areas they fish, then uses a statistical program to incorporate the data to come up with small-scale relative indices of abundances. It won’t be perfect, but it will give scientists an indicator of the abundance of certain fishes.

“We are trying to do all this so we can go from a data-poor situation to a data-moderate situation. In a data-poor situation, we’ve had to instigate these really Draconian measures because we did not have any long-term data,” said VenTresca.

Everyone should be relieved with the new steps being taken by Fish and Game. The fishermen have said that they can understand a fishing restriction placed on them if it is backed up in science. Darby Neil, who’s been taking weekend warriors out fishing at Virg’s Landing since he was a kid, sees fishermen as the biggest environmentalists of all.

“Nobody wants to overfish the fishery; especially the fishermen. It’s their livelihood,” said Neil. “People don’t realize how large this ocean is and its ability to be a sustainable resource. [Sport fishermen] have such a small influence on it—a hook and line is such a small impact.”

VenTresca said some good might finally be coming out of all the noise. In the end, fishermen and the Department of Fish and Game have to work together to come to a solution that both man and animal can live with. He said the way it is now is almost bottom of the barrel, and there’s nowhere to go but up:

“How could things be worse? Our resources are way down. The landings are way down. The department’s broke. But maybe out of chaos or necessity comes this invention—an alliance between the department and fisherman where the department is using their knowledge of data and statistics together with the fisherman’s fantastic observations. They’re out there every day.” ³

Staff Writer Matt McBride can be reached at

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