Marine Protected Area decision looms

The Department of Fish and Game was scheduled to decide this week whether to adopt 13 protected areas off the coast, including at Point Dume, therefore limiting or banning commercial fishing in those areas. Meantime, squid fishermen will have reached the commercial limits by Friday, Fish and Game says.

By Knowles Adkisson / Special to The Malibu Times

In recent months, clusters of large, brightly lit fishing vessels have been sighted floating off the coast of north Malibu after nightfall. Coinciding with the beginning of the squid spawning season in October, their arrival has some residents wondering just what they are doing, and if environmental protections are being followed.

This concern comes as the California Department of Fish and Game (DFG) was set to adopt 13 proposed marine protected areas (MPAs) Wednesday this week in Santa Barbara. That includes Point Dume, a popular area for squid fishermen, which would prohibit commercial fishing between El Matador State Beach and Paradise Cove. If passed, the new MPAs are expected to be implemented by the spring. The Marine Life Protection Act, adopted by the state Legislature in 1999, requires the state to evaluate and/or redesign all existing state MPAs, and to add new ones to create a network of protected areas. The marine reserves would permit swimming and other recreational activities, but prohibit any kinds of extraction, from fish to kelp, other than for certain scientific data collection.

While environmentalists applaud the idea of further protections, fishermen argue that they are unnecessary for a host of reasons. For starters, squid are what is called a “highly fecund species,” meaning that they reproduce frequently and therefore are less susceptible to overfishing than other species such as tuna or sardines.

David Haworth, a San Diego fisherman whose boat, the Barbara H, sometimes fishes off Malibu, said that the last two years have been “banner squid seasons,” and “so far this is one of the best early seasons we’ve seen.”

However, this overabundance of squid has caused the DFG to announce this week that the season’s harvest limit of 118,000 short tons of market squid will have been reached by Friday. A season usually lasts April through March, but now the commercial fisheries will have to stop operations by this Friday. It is the first time the harvest limit has been reached since it was implemented in 2002 by the DFG.

“We have had a banner year for market squid this year” said Dale Sweetnam, a DFG senior marine biologist who oversees the commercial market squid fishery. “In California, we have had squid landings from La Jolla to Half Moon Bay and reports that market squid are abundant off many of the offshore banks, the Channel Islands, as well as off Baja California. The colder than normal water conditions we have observed since February have provided optimal conditions for squid spawning.”

Squid today is California’s most valuable fishery. Haworth estimates that “squid counts for 50 percent to 75 percent of [every fisherman’s] bottom line gross” in California. The DFG reports that in 2009, a little more than 100,000 tons of squid was landed at a value of $56.5 million.

The fishermen believe that creating MPAs to protect a species that is not in danger of overfishing unfairly punishes them for performing a needed service. They say they must capitalize in good times to brace against the bad, such as El Nino years when warm water wipes out entire squid seasons.

The problem is partially one of perception. Haworth and other California fishermen fear they’ve been lumped in with more exploitative elements in the global fishing industry.

One Malibu resident who complained to The Malibu Times, for example, said she was worried about whether the boats were domestic or foreign, and thus presumably more likely to disregard environmental regulations. In reality, the California squid fishery is highly regulated and completely domestic.

Most California fishing boats range between 58 feet and 85 feet long, small by commercial maritime standards, where some international industrial trawlers exceed the length of a football field. In 2004, a restricted access program reduced the number of commercial squid fishing transferable permits issued from 164 to 77, and weekend fishing has been banned.

The process of squid fishing

Contemporary squid fishing has come a long way from the days when Chinese fishermen first rowed Monterey Bay during the 1860s, in flimsy skiffs with blazing torches to attract the squid below.

Each year around October, squid take to the sandy shallows off Southern California to spawn. Most squid is caught between Ventura and Los Angeles, which explains the high number of boats off Malibu’s coast. They are followed by commercial fishermen returning after a summer spent chasing tuna and sardines from Oregon to Alaska. From October until February, these fishermen typically leave port on Sunday afternoon, and fish each night straight through to Friday morning.

Modern squid operations employ two vessels, a purse-seiner and a light boat, that work in concert. The light boat is the bait. Once a school of squid is found, the captain switches on powerful light bulbs mounted to a platform above the cabin. Soon, upward of 20,000 watts of light are beaming downward, which the spawning squid rise to meet like moths to a flame. Then the purse-seiner-so called because its seine, or net, closes like a purse-detaches its skiff, a small dinghy that is linked to the seiner by a weighted fishing net. With the skiff floating in place as an anchor, the seiner traces a wide arc around the light boat, until it is completely encircled by the underwater wall of net.

The power of the lights has been likened to a nighttime NFL game, beneath which the squid act out their own peculiar drama. The circumference of the net shrinks as deckhands on the seiner cycle their wenches, and the roiling mass of marine life grows thicker. The squid’s hormonal frenzy disturbs phosphorescent plankton as they reach the surface, resulting in a chromatic twinkling light show the fishermen refer to as “fire.” When the net is sufficiently narrow, the light boat drives off, and hydraulic pumps start flushing the squid into the hold of the seiner.

The entire process is called a “set,” and continues two, three and four times until either the seiner’s limit is met or the sun comes up. Each morning the seiners drop off their catch at one of California’s 12 commercial fish markets. Once in port, more powerful pumps can off-load 40 tons of squid in about an hour. There they are frozen and shipped, usually abroad to Europe or Asia. The DFG reported that last year, California fish businesses exported market squid to 36 countries, with China being the leading importer of California market squid. There is a good chance that calamari eaten locally originated nearby, was sent off to Europe for processing and then returned to local restaurants.

The Malibu Times is the first newspaper in Malibu, serving the community since 1946.

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