The Fisherman’s Dilemma

Off the coast of California, a radical experiment has closed hundreds of miles of ocean to fishing. Will it lead to better catches for years to come?

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This story earned second place for “Best Story on Food Policy or Food Issues” from AFJ.

“So, a little orientation,” my scuba guide told me on the beach at Monterey Bay. “First thing, don’t mess with the sea otters.

“I don’t want to mess with the sea otters.”

“Exactly,” said the guide, “because the sea otter is basically a 60-pound weasel. Mess with the sea otter and the sea otter could tear your wet suit to shreds.”

OK, point taken on the sea otters.

“Second thing you’re going to have to deal with is the kelp. If you get snagged in the kelp, don’t pull. What you want to do is kind of roll … like this.”

Here the dive master pantomimed an underwater pirouette. I tried and failed to imagine myself, a middle-aged New Yorker who’d never dived the California Pacific, doing the same. But, again, point taken.

What had drawn me to peek under California’s waves was not a great love of scuba, but something radical that California was trying to do with its ocean. Over the past 15 years the state has upended nearly every aspect of its fisheries management. At the center of that effort is the creation of 124 marine protected areas, covering more than 850 square miles, where fishing is banned or severely curtailed. At a little more than 16 percent of California’s ocean holdings, this represents more protected water than that of any other state in the continental United States. What makes California’s experiment unique as well as controversial is more than its size, though: It’s the “network effect” its proponents think they can achieve. By creating an interconnected stretch of no-fishing and restricted-fishing areas up and down the coast, scientists and conservationists theorize they can weave back together the elements of an ecosystem that two centuries of exploitation has blown apart.

A haul of mostly chilipepper rockfish caught outside of Monterey.
A haul of mostly chilipepper rockfish caught outside of Monterey.

My interest was personal as well. Since childhood, fishing has been my greatest passion. Whenever I’ve discovered a new piece of good-looking water, my default instinct has been to find out where the fish are living and go and get them. I have with hook and line killed many hundreds of fish. The problem is, this same base instinct guides much of the way humans behave toward marine life. Since the 1970s, the annual global catch has doubled to around 80 million metric tons — the equivalent of the weight of the human population of China. Now, as I started to explore a state that was taking a wholly new approach, I wondered whether California’s plans for its sea might affect my own relationship to fish.

Monterey Bay is the site of Lovers Point–Julia Platt Marine Reserve, formerly the Hopkins Marine Life Refuge, one of the places where California’s ocean-conservation movement began. The reserve came into being back when ocean ecology was a quaint idea and restricting fishing an absurdity. But when you dip below Monterey’s waves, fish aren’t the first thing to enter your head. Rather it’s the crushing cold water, which courses under your diving hood and floods downward. Struggling against the wet suit’s buoyancy, I slipped beneath the surface and caught up with the dive master. I dropped down another ten feet, and the temperature dropped another ten degrees.

Cold coastal water is the defining characteristic of much of California’s seaside — in part the result of prevailing northern winds and the eastward turning of the earth. These forces drive warm surface water offshore, allowing an upwelling of nutrient-rich deep water in its place. This frigid, fertile stream, known as the California Current, once supported an integrated system of kelp forests, invertebrates, fish, and sea otters stretching from southern British Columbia to the southern tip of Baja California. But over the years, piece by piece, that system has been dismantled.

It was the sea otters with all their wet-suit-shredding ferocity that were the first piece to be removed. The otter’s dense fur made it the state’s first export product, cloaking Chinese royalty for nearly a century. By 1850, the otters were all but exterminated. With the otters gone, the urchin and abalone population exploded and started devouring the kelp forest. This caused another California fishing boom and bust. Chinese émigrés discovered abalone all along the coast and began drying and shipping it back to their homeland until the abalone, too, declined.

Other immigrant communities found their place in California by fishing, in particular Croatians, Italians, and other southern Europeans. Although demand grew for California fish through the 20th century, halibut, rockfish, lingcod, and other bottom-dwelling “groundfish” remained primarily local staples. This small-scale dynamic was upset in 1983 when the federal government extended its ocean sovereignty out to 200 nautical miles and began an effort to expand the country’s commercial fishing fleet. Between 1976 and 1996 the number of large vessels in the U.S. increased by more than 70 percent to 28,870 boats.

Making matters worse, fishing expanded without managers properly taking into account the natural fluctuations of the California Current. The eastern Pacific is governed by something called the Pacific Decadal Oscillation — a sun-driven cycle where ocean temperatures shift periodically from cold to extreme-cold regimes every few decades. These subtle changes affect the composition of ocean life. During the colder phases, plankton species shift and some fish struggle. Monterey’s sardine-dependent Cannery Row appears to have collapsed in part because of the end of a warmer regime in the mid-1940s. In the late 1990s, when the oscillation wobbled in the cold direction again, nine species of rockfish suffered particularly steep declines. In 2000, the federal government declared the West Coast groundfish fishery an economic disaster. Soon after, the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program — perhaps the nation’s most influential arbiter on sustainable fish — placed many California species on its red “Avoid” list.

But now in Monterey Bay, as I pushed my way into the kelp in a zone where fishing had been severely curtailed, I got a glimpse of what primeval California might once have looked like. This was not only because fishing had been limited, but also because the system’s missing pieces have started to slot themselves back in. In 1938, just after the completion of the Pacific Coast Highway, a remnant population of sea otters was discovered off Big Sur. That small group of animals was protected and gradually began working its way up the coast. When in 1962 the otters entered into Monterey Bay, they were welcomed by a new concept in ocean management: the Hopkins Marine Life Refuge, one of only two no-fishing areas in the country at the time. The otters cropped down the sea urchins and the abalone, and something of an intact ecosystem started to reemerge.

Perched on equipment that provides a live feed from an underwater rover, Elsa watches over Tim Maricich’s wheelhouse.
Perched on equipment that provides a live feed from an underwater rover, Elsa watches over Tim Maricich’s wheelhouse.

Now as I parted the curtain of kelp, the full breadth of the system came at me with all its diversity. To my left a field of flower-like anemone waved and blossomed. Several copper rockfish came into view, their eyes twitching from side to side. Here and there lingcod skulked along the bottom, and little flutters of ocean perch slipped by and lingered around the kelp fronds. Up until now, I had only ever seen these fish on the end of a line. In various trips I’d made over the years out of San Pedro or Oxnard I’d hauled in dozens of them, pulling them up from extreme depth, fighting them hard until the fish hit the ten-fathom mark. At that point the pressure shifts caused their eyes to pop out of their sockets and their innards to swell into their mouths. The suffering creatures floated beatifically to the surface without resistance. Here, though, they swam and intermingled, coming together and bursting apart.

“Are we down yet,” Tim Maricich called from the bridge of his boat, Donna Kathleen.

“Yeah, we’re down,” one of the conservation biologists from the environmental-nonprofit Nature Conservancy answered back from the cabin below.

Maricich put his engines to idle, hunched his lanky frame forward, and looked into a video monitor. The scientists stared intently into their own set of monitors. On the screen a part of the seafloor came into view that many had fished but few had seen. A remotely operated vehicle, or rov, was settling onto Portuguese Ledge, a marine protected area 3 miles west of the town of Monterey, on the edge of a Grand Canyon–deep ravine. The vehicle’s camera began a slow pan. Out of the miasma, several faces emerged, most of them belonging to different varieties of rockfish. Some of them were the kinds of protected species that had led to the closure of fishing grounds and put Tim Maricich out of business. There was enough light to make out differences of color and shape, but only barely.

“Is that a yelloweye?” a graduate student named Christian Denney wondered half to himself and half to his Cal State supervisor Rick Starr.

“Yelloweye!” Maricich called from above.

“Tim’s taking Christian to school,” Starr said, and then checked the box on his research spreadsheet marked “yelloweye rockfish.”

There is probably no better candidate for someone who should not want to collaborate with conservationists than the man who was in the wheelhouse. Hailing from three generations of Croatian fishermen, Maricich has fished up and down the California coast for more than 47 years. But when more than 150 square miles in the Channel Islands were closed as part of the state’s first marine reserve network, Maricich lost a swath of fishing grounds. He then retreated north to the edges of the Monterey Canyon, where he worked for a number of years until planners began identifying areas that might form part of a Central Coast network.

“I told them at the time,” Maricich said, “ ‘You can take one area or the other, but not both.’ ”

They took both.

To fishermen like Maricich, conservationists can be susceptible at times to a Manichaean view of the seas, something I’ve witnessed in my interactions with foundation-funded ocean-conservation organizations. (Full disclosure: Since 2014, I have been a Pew Fellow in Marine Conservation.) Close fishing grounds, and the ocean will recover. Stop bottom trawling, and seafloor life will rebuild itself. But ocean ecosystems are a continually changing matrix of interlocking parts, one of which is commercial fishing. Fishermen who spend far more working hours on the water than scientists and who by nature are solitary and not always effective communicators often find themselves struck dumb in the face of the negotiations that stand to take away their livelihoods.

“I said to myself, ‘I’m dead. I’m out of the fishery,’ ” Maricich recalled. He thought it might be time to get out of fishing altogether. The year before, the Nature Conservancy had initiated a program in Morro Bay to reduce the size of the fishing fleet in federal waters and was buying vessels. He approached the nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council to see if they’d do the same for fishermen displaced by state closures. “Just buy me out,” Maricich said. “Put me out of business.” No offer came.

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It was a particularly painful time for Maricich and for many other commercial fishermen, largely because they felt that they had already complied with so much regulatory upheaval. Just as California was carving out no-fishing reserves, federal fisheries managers, under pressure from nonprofits, were instituting a slew of restrictions in the nationally controlled waters. In 2001, the environmental group Oceana and several other organizations successfully sued to close “essential fish habitat” in federal waters up and down the coast. In 2002, the federal government instituted a coastwide Rockfish Conservation Area to the 40-fathom mark, which closed still more ocean. In 2004, the state significantly restricted the practice of bottom trawling, probably the most productive form of fishing, in which boats drag nets along the seafloor. Together, all of these different rules helped shrink the number of boats registered in California from a high of 8,427 vessels in 1981 to 2,818 in 2011.

Nearing what for many would be retirement age, Maricich realized he had to find a place for himself within the new order. “I thought, Who is going to do the research around all this? If the science community is saying spot prawn are primary feed for rockfish, and we’re doing bottom degradation by fishing spot prawn, you can’t have those same scientists doing the monitoring. Let’s have transparency, and let’s have fishermen involved.”

Maricich’s decision to throw in his lot with fish counters rather than catchers is in part economic, but it also stems from one truth that in a backdoor kind of way unites fishermen and conservationists: After all the closures and commissions, all the surveys and reappraisals, the ocean is still deeply mysterious. In the 1970s and 1980s, a profound knowledge deficit led to a policy of killing fish first and asking questions later. In the 2000s, the corrective — to close fishing grounds first and ask questions later — has been equally burdened by the problem of the vastness of the ocean.

Which was why the research Tim Maricich has been doing with the Nature Conservancy over the past three years is so important. It suggests that the regulatory overhaul and the federal and state closures are working. “We’re pretty consistently finding species like the yelloweye rockfish, which are deemed overfished,” the Nature Conservancy’s Mary Gleason told me. “That suggests that the formal stock assessments are probably underestimating their abundance and that the Rockfish Conservation Areas are probably contributing to their rebuilding. We’re seeing big schools of fish — widow rockfish, chilipepper rockfish. It’s gotten the fishermen pretty excited. They’re hoping some of this data might support opening up some of the closed areas.”

Down below, the monitoring droned on as the researchers’ attention flagged.

“When there aren’t many fish and there’s just this stuff in the water,” Christian Denney said, “my brain starts to see things. Is that a fish or just a bunch of gunk?”

“That’s why sensory deprivation is so effective as a torture method,” the senior scientist Rick Starr noted.

“Wait, was that a copper rockfish head-on?” Christian asked.

“Copper, head-on!” Maricich called out.

“Tim, you must be listening to Christian.”

“Hey,” Maricich called down. “That was a big fish.”

To ensure that a sport-fishing boat doesn’t exceed its limit, a tally of the day’s catch is kept.
To ensure that a sport-fishing boat doesn’t exceed its limit, a tally of the day’s catch is kept.

WHEN I TAKE stock of my life as a fisherman, the particular species that torments me is Atlantic cod. Back in the early 2000s, I began making an annual winter cod trip to Gloucester, Massachusetts. In spite of all I’d read about codfish heading toward extirpation, I nearly always ended up with good-size brown-and-yellow-speckled cod whenever I’d drop a line to the bottom. But as the years went by I began to notice that the codfish started getting progressively smaller and that the sport-fishing fleet was converging on an ever-diminishing area. The oceans still seemed full of fish, but in fact the codfish range was shrinking and the population was making something of a last stand.

This, it turns out, is a phenomenon that the marine ecologist Daniel Pauly has identified as “the shifting baseline syndrome.” Simply put, when we possess no absolute measure of natural abundance, our minds use a sliding scale and incorporate what can be enormous declines within a redefinition of “normal.” This continual forgetting and recalibration compels fishermen to forever move on to new grounds. As Pauly put it to me, “Even when fisheries seem to be stable, they are slowly expanding.” Marine protected areas are the flip side of this constant expansion. By closing areas to fishing, we establish a baseline against which all our deductions can be finally measured.

As I started thinking more and more about the possibility of not fishing, I decided to visit the Channel Islands marine reserve network. It comprises the first group of no-fish areas created in California and has the most data available for analysis in the post-sanctuary era. Since 2003, around a quarter of the water around the Channels has been closed to fishing. Now, more than a decade later, I wanted to see if shutting down that much ocean could have the effect that scientists hoped it would.

Just before dawn, I boarded the Cobra in the town of Oxnard. In former times I might have fished off Laguna Beach or Marina del Rey. But now with reserves blocking much of the grounds to the south, Oxnard was my port of last resort. Other fishermen had the same idea. A small armada took shape in the penumbra when we reached the fringe of a kelp forest a little ways outside of a marine reserve near Anacapa Island.

As the Cobra slowed to prepare for a first drift, I grabbed a live squid in the bait well. After hooking it through, I flipped it out and cringed as it almost dropped into the cockpit of a sleek private yacht cutting us off stern-side. “Hey,” one angler on our boat yelled. “Get outta the way!”

Closing areas to fishing doesn’t necessarily reduce the amount of fishing that goes on. In fact, it may crowd more and more fishermen into a smaller space. This displacement effect, some theorize, could possibly cause a net loss of fish if you were to take into account areas both inside and outside the reserves. Amid the crowding of boats off Anacapa, it was easy to think that something like that was happening.

When the networks were designed, the long-term growth of the fish population was of greater concern than the crowding of fishermen. Steve Gaines, dean of the Bren School of Environmental Science & Management at the University of California at Santa Barbara and one of the driving forces behind the Channel Islands reserve, explains the theory of the networks this way: “Imagine if human babies when they were born were tied to helium balloons and then we let them float for three or four days until the balloons deflated. Wherever those babies ended up would be where they would spend the rest of their lives. That’s the way it is with fish. Because larvae drift, one reserve can enrich other reserves even though they’re widely separated.”

A decade later, the first comprehensive results are starting to emerge from scuba surveys. Jenn Caselle, a research biologist also from the University of California at Santa Barbara, has logged thousands of dive hours in the same cold water and kelp I experienced in Monterey. She’s found a noticeable change there, particularly around Anacapa Island, where I was now fishing. “The important message from the Channel Islands over ten years,” she says, “is that the fish inside the reserves are increasing. But here’s the key point. The populations of many fished species outside the reserves are alsoincreasing — not as fast, but they’re increasing. This is really important because it was feared that the redistribution of fishing effort could cause scorched earth outside the reserves. That’s not happening.”

All those extra boats that were wedged against the Cobra were apparently not doing as much damage as one would expect. Indeed, the fishing I experienced off Anacapa showed no sign of diminished returns. Once we’d cleared the stern of the private yacht and I flipped my squid through a pile of kelp, line started peeling off my reel. I leaned back and set the hook. Five minutes later, what I thought of as an impressive fish — a nearly 3-foot-long lilac-and-silver white sea bass — came to the gaff and hit the deck with a thud. I was certain my fish was going to win the jackpot, the pool of money anglers contribute to at the beginning of the day that is awarded for the biggest catch.

Evidence like Caselle’s isn’t good enough for some critics. Ray Hilborn, a professor of aquatic and fisheries science at the University of Washington who’s frequently cited by fishermen as a counterweight to the “enviros,” claims there’s no evidence that the sanctuaries are having a comprehensive effect. Hilborn had taken part in the establishment of California marine reserves and found the science guidelines lacking in academic rigor. “If they had done it correctly,” he says, “there would have been adequate control groups, like with any experiment. They would have set up three reserves and three non-reserves and then compared the fish in each after five and then ten years.”

But Caselle argues that a control for an experiment the size of the Channel Islands network is an impossibility. “The hypothesis is that the total effect of a network is greater than the sum of its parts,” she says. “But that is very difficult to measure. That would require having another region that is similar in all ways to Southern California but without marine protected areas. Essentially, there are no controls for entire networks.” In other words, the entire California approach to linking its fragmented coast is a leap of faith. A leap of faith where the default is not fishing instead of fishing.

My “big” 30-inch white sea bass was soon trumped by another white sea bass a good 6 inches longer. Then came a bigger one. And an even bigger one. And finally a fish so big that my posing for a group photo with the other anglers and their fish at day’s end was an embarrassment. For good measure, just as we were gearing up to head home, the captain eased the Cobra right up to the edge of the reserve, which caused an angler in the stern to shriek. She had hooked a halibut the size of a radial tire.

Were all these fish the result of the reserve? Or was it just a good day, as can happen, even when there aren’t that many fish around? It cannot yet be scientifically documented. Since many fish that are specifically protected by the reserves, like rockfish, can live many dozens of years, it may be a long time until we know the extent to which reserves populate other fishing grounds. By the end of the day, when the mate cleaned our catch and the dozen-odd fishermen aboard the Cobra all had a bag or two of fillets to show, there seemed to be a grudging feeling that the Channel Islands experiment had shifted something. As we motored back to port, a retired chef who’d been fishing next to me muttered, “I’ll tell you what, if it wasn’t for these closures, there wouldn’t be any fish at all.”

This thought stayed with me as I made my way to the airport. After boarding a plane I checked my phone before shutting it down for the trip back east. Atop the headlines was the news that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration had closed the entirety of the East Coast from Provincetown, Massachusetts, to the Canadian border to both commercial and sport cod fishing —  at least until May, in an effort to reverse declining fish populations in the Gulf of Maine. These were grounds I’d helped deplete over the past decade. After the latest stock assessment it was revealed that cod had dipped to an even lower level than had previously been assumed. The remaining stocks from Cape Cod to the Gulf of Maine, a population upon which colonial New England built its economy, were now reported to be between 3 and 4 percent of what would be required to have a sustainable fishery.

As I considered this news, I thought how the fishermen of California might have avoided a similar fate. The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program recently surveyed the range of fisheries off California and moved many of the state’s groundfish species off its red “Avoid” list. In the decades ahead, commercial fishermen might enjoy rebuilt runs of rockfish and lingcod, surging runs of white sea bass and squid, all of them dashing through the regrown kelp in pursuit of sardines and anchovies that are also, apparently, on the rebound.

With the spring migrations coming on, the usual time I’d head to Gloucester for cod, I thought about what I might do instead. Was there something else I could fish? Maybe mackerel would swing through our waters as they once did in my youth but now only do on occasion. Maybe the blackfish would make an appearance if they hadn’t been hit too hard by lobstermen whose Long Island Sound lobster had grown scarce. Or maybe I’ll just hang it up and not fish at all this season.

Story was originally produced in partnership with California Sunday. All rights reserved. This article may not be reproduced without express permission from FERN. If you are interested in republishing or reposting this article, please contact info@thefern.org.