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Courtesy of Chris Goldblatt

Endangered Wisdom

Fishing Culture Needed to Truly Protect Oceans


In the last week of May, I started the summer season by spearing a 44-pound white sea bass with my old buddy Jack on his 25-foot commercial fishing Radon, the Freedom. I normally keep my catches under wraps for fear of starting a feeding frenzy at my favorite spots. She was an amazing fish that fed over 20 people.

Jack and I have made a living from the sea in one way or another for the past 27 years. We started out of Malibu and San Diego during a time when fishing had hit a down cycle. We grew up with dismal catches and annoying stories from the old guys about how good it used to be. Over the past decades, concerted efforts by anglers have brought the white sea bass back from the edge of oblivion to a recovering  and now healthy, fishery, with frequent catches of fish over 60 pounds and three-fish limits for all aboard. As young deck hands in the 1980’s, if we worked a day where a dozen fish were boated, we talked about it for months after. Today, such catches are commonplace.

And that is because of the angler-supported white sea bass hatchery release program, plus the fact that the 1990 voter initiative Proposition 132 pushed the overly abundant shallow water gill nets outside of main inshore spawning areas. Anglers used their funds and collected almost a million hard-won signatures to get Prop 132 on the ballot. As a onetime commercial fisherman, I recognize the painful hurt the gill net ban caused gill-netters at the time, but it was necessary nonetheless. Twenty years later we have a robust inshore white sea bass fishery with a promising future, something that, as a young person hearing stories about how they were all gone, I never would have imagined. These fishery saving efforts were done by enthusiastic anglers and divers who loved the white sea bass and cared deeply for the marine environment.

All of this is a sort of long prelude to my point: People need to realize that anglers and spearfishers, like any other group of people, have a culture that needs to maintained in order for it to continue to do good works for the ocean. As in any culture, you have elders who teach the young, and you have places of learning. For many anglers and divers, those places of learning—starting places really—are the sheltered areas currently zoned to be forever and permanently closed as Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), a concept backed by universities and aquariums.

The places to be closed are “coincidentally” directly in front of the institutions that helped map them out. The closures will shut off the three-mile swaths of currently very productive fishing grounds in front of UCSB’s Marine Science Center (Campus Point), in front of UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography (Sunset Cliffs), in front of Catalina Island Marine Institute (Toyon Bay), and, worst of all, in front of Malibu Marine Science Magnet School—where the entire bight from Point Dume to Paradise Cove Pier, and the reef known as the BKR (Big Kelp Reef) will be shut off.

These areas have been used by fathers for 100 years as places to take their young boys and men to teach them the ways of fishing and spearfishing. Such efforts maintain the culture of fishing and ensure that efforts to protect the fisheries and the marine environment will continue. When the MPA’s go into effect in these areas next year, they will kill off the vital learning areas where the young and poor begin their fishing and spear-fishing careers, and their lifelong passion to protect the oceans.

The entire MPA process completely failed to recognize, or even consider for a moment, the long term negative effects that closing off the incubators of the fishing culture will have on the ocean resource. This oversight comes as no surprise, as the MPA folks, steamrolling over everyone, have also turned former allies, fishermen and scientists, into bitter enemies, creating a permanent state of conflict between the two sides. The net effect of the state of conflict will be that the divided ocean community will no longer be able to work together to solve real ocean issues such as ocean acidification, rapid response to oil spills, and the curbing of toxic, reef-killing runoff. Only recently have the MPA folks begun to study the socioeconomic effects of killing off the culture of fishing. Their million-dollar, fuzzy, feel-good, sea grant-funded study is like studying the damage after a bomb goes off.

The MPAs may sound good on paper, but they simply have failed to take into account the effect of compactions (overfishing by lumping too many boats into the open areas); the damaging effect of the state of conflict that they have created; the lack of the $40 million in taxpayer dollars they need to operate; and the huge moral cost and toxic effect that turning the last free place on the earth, the ocean, into a highly patrolled police state will have on the marine ecosystem and the human soul. They have not considered freedom and morality in their equations at all.

They seem to simply feel that the ends justify the means and that a few proverbial dead bodies are simply acceptable rates of collateral damage. The saddest thing of all is that the MPA crowd has managed to dupe an ignorant public into thinking the fish are all dead and that they are coming to the rescue. This simply is not the case.

Chris Goldblatt is the author of the Luke Dodge Ocean Adventure Series.



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