Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary






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The Status of the Nearshore Live Fish Fishery and the Need for Effective Management

 Black and yellow rockfish (©Don Gotshall)

Status of Fishing

Fish populations within the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary remain healthy. The El Niño and La Niña phenomena of the last two years have influenced the migration patterns of some species of fishes, but the stocks in general are still abundant. An exception would be some rockfish stocks, which are healthy but appear to be somewhat depressed at this time.

Probably one of the most unusual occurrences this past year was the appearance of bluefin tuna within Sanctuary waters; some were even caught in Monterey Bay.

This year most of the squid in Monterey Bay have gone into deep water and cannot be reached by the commercial fishermen's nets. Bluefin tuna caught in these deep waters were found to be feeding heavily on squid. Record numbers of squid are now being caught south of our Sanctuary near Point Hueneme and the Channel Islands.

Last year, because of El Niño, salmon fishing within the Sanctuary was disappointing. The 1999 season, however, has proven to be a banner year. Surprisingly, most of the salmon didn't venture into Monterey Bay itself, but were found in abundance between Santa Cruz and the northern boundary of our Sanctuary. Good fishing was also reported off the Monterey Peninsula and Carmel Bay. Salmon this year were of excellent quality, averaging more than two pounds per fish heavier than usual.

While sardines remain abundant in Monterey Bay, their size is somewhat smaller than usual. The larger sardines have been found in the northern part of our Sanctuary, off Half Moon Bay and up to the waters off British Columbia. The entire West Coast is witnessing the re-emergence of this magnificent resource.

--Dave Danbom
Fishing Industry Representative,
Monterey Bay National Marine
Sanctuary Advisory Council

Nearshore fisheries have existed in California for decades, but a recent fishery for live fishes used in local restaurants and shipped overseas started in southern California in the late 1980s, spread to northern California in the early 1990s, and now has become common in central California. These fishing boats use hook and line, pole fishing, and traps. Live finfish in California comprise more than 60 percent of the annual nearshore fish landings, which have increased from approximately 20,000 to more than a million (M) pounds and from approximately $20,000 to $2.7 M in value in the past eight years. Between five and fifty species, depending upon location, season, and year, are landed in this fishery.

Recently, the California Department of Fish and Game (CDFG) created teams to deal with specific fishery issues. The Nearshore Fish Team has met several times to discuss how to evaluate and regulate, if necessary, the live fish fishery. In its spring 1999 meeting, the team noted many gaps in knowledge on this fishery and its target species, including accurate estimates of the abundance (from both fishery-dependent and -independent catch and effort data sources), species composition, natural history, bycatches, effect of changing ocean conditions, socio-economic factors, and the ecosystem role of species subject to fisheries. The team estimated that the costs of doing the necessary research to fill these gaps would be approximately $10 M just for the first year!

Some scientists think the live fish fishery will fail because it targets mainly small, immature individuals of shallow, nearshore fishes. Certainly, fisheries for juvenile fishes, especially if they target all areas where these juveniles live, cannot last long. Of special concern is the fact that many of these fishes are being harvested before they get a chance to reproduce for the first time. Since rockfish are typically long-lived, often take many years to mature, and are known to have highly-variable, successful recruitment, harvesting them before they mature and reproduce can be disastrous for their populations.

In addition, the live fish fishery targets sizes and species of fishes not taken by many fishermen prior to now. Many of these nearshore fishes are very site-intensive. Thus, any heavy fishing on their populations—most of which have established home sites and will not move much after settling, except to forage and perhaps reproduce—could be very deleterious to the local population densities.

In June 1999 the U.C. Sea Grant Marine Advisory Program and CDFG sponsored a Workshop on Assessing and Managing Nearshore Fisheries. Recommendations from fishery biologists who attended include the need to obtain the best possible data on catch, effort, species and size composition, reproduction, maturity, location, site specificity, larval dispersal and recruitment, and socio-economic variables to enable CDFG to evaluate the trends in this increasing fishery and manage it appropriately.

Two pieces of California legislation, enacted in 1998, require Fishery Management Plans (FMPs), shift the nearshore fishery regulatory authority from the California Legislature to the Fish and Game Commission, and establish size limits for selected species. Size limits between 10-12" were established for six species of rockfish, including the black and yellow, gopher, kelp, China, grass, and brown rockfishes, and limits of 10" for scorpionfish, 12" for sheephead, and 14" for cabezon. Other species taken in this fishery include greenlings, surfperches, deep-water thornyhead fishes, and crustaceans such as the spot prawn. However, for most of these species, there have not been validated age determination or estimates of age/size at maturity studies. Also, size limits may not be very effective because many of the undersized fishes with swim bladders will suffer barotrauma (disorientation and possible death caused by pressure change) and not survive well when returned to the sea.

Pile surfperch (©Don Gotshall)

Without better information on the life histories of these species and on the status of their populations, adequate FMPs will be difficult to produce. In addition, regulations will continue to be difficult to enforce due to the transient nature of the nearshore fish fishery and delivery systems and the limited enforcement available. More accurate information on the fishery, habitat requirements, and life histories of these fishes is needed to ensure that sufficient management policies are enacted to guarantee the continued health of these nearshore fish assemblages.

--Gregor M. Cailliet
Moss Landing Marine Laboratories

Monitoring Marine Mammal and Seabird Bycatch in the Monterey Area Set Gillnet Fishery

During the 1980s extensive bycatch of seabirds and marine mammals in central California's set gillnet fisheries prompted a series of regulations, which ultimately appear-ed successful at reducing mortality of the three species of primary concern: Common Murre, sea otter (Enhydra lutris) and harbor porpoise (Phocoena phocoena). A National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) observer program provided bycatch data from 1990 to 1994, and was discontinued after 1994 because bycatch of harbor porpoise was low and no sea otters were observed entangled after 1990.

In August 1997, however, an unusual seabird stranding event was detected by the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary's Beach COMBERS program (see Bird Section for program details). Several hundred dead Common Murres were found on a 14-km section of beach in southern Monterey Bay. Because of the localized nature of the strandings, and because Common Murres had a history of significant mortality in gillnets, fishery entanglement was considered a possible cause of death for these birds.

Halibut set gillnet fishery records revealed that effort had increased substantially between 1994 and 1998 and had also shifted to the southern areas of Monterey Bay (Figure 1). Increasing effort was taking place just offshore of the beaches exhibiting high seabird deposition rates. This area historically had high bycatch rates of harbor porpoise, southern sea otter, and Common Murres. There was, therefore, concern over potential increased fishery mortality for all three species, particularly given an increase in harbor porpoise stranding rates and an apparent decline in the sea otter population after 1995 (see article in Endangered Species section). Without observer data for 1995-98, however, it was not possible to estimate accurately the level of mortality during those years.

Figure 1: Halibut set gillnet fishery effort for Monterey Bay in the 1990s.

In April 1999 NMFS reinstated an observer program for the Monterey Bay area set gillnet fishery. Approximately 25 percent of fishing effort was observed between April and September, providing much-needed data on marine mammal and seabird entanglements. Observed mortalities for this six-month period included 26 harbor porpoises, 1 unidentified cetacean (almost certainly a harbor porpoise), 47 harbor seals, 4 elephant seals, 5 California sea lions, 1 southern sea otter, and 286 Common Murres. Although overall mortality estimates are not yet available, simple extrapolation indicates that about 100 harbor porpoises, 1,000 Common Murres, and up to 4 sea otters may have died in Monterey Bay area gillnets during this period.

Multi-agency efforts are presently underway to evaluate and address this mortality. The central California harbor porpoise population is estimated to be about 5,700 animals, and under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the maximum allowable incidental mortality of this species is forty-two animals per year. NMFS is therefore currently working with fishermen to implement voluntary measures to reduce the mortality of harbor porpoise, including the use of acoustical devices ('pingers'), which have been extremely effective at reducing marine mammal entanglements in other gillnet fisheries. Studies are also underway to identify the potential impacts of the present gillnet mortality on southern sea otters and Common Murres.

--Karin A. Forney
Southwest Fisheries Science Center

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Last modified on: March 31, 2000