It was as easy as hook, line and sinker. A captain would ready his boat, navigate the channel toward a designated Channel Islands fishery, and reel in his catch to provide a living for himself and sustenance for the seafood-loving public.

Though the practice of the fishing profession has remained the same, the world surrounding the commercial fisherman, especially in California, has become protective of its waters. With new regulations and the enactments of the state’s Marine Life Management Act and the Marine Life Protection Act, the tides of commercial fishing for county fishermen have changed indefinitely, leaving the future of the age-old profession in limbo.

“There are so many rules and regulations now, people are confused about what is going on,” said Bill Sutton, 56, commercial fisherman and co-owner of Sea Fresh Seafood in Ojai and Oxnard, who has been fishing commercially for 41 years. “A lot of people aren’t going fishing now because it is such a hassle,” he said.

In a recent economic analysis commissioned by the California Department of Fish and Game from Humboldt State University, the number of licensed commercial fishermen is diminishing, and sales of commercial fishing licenses dropped 31 percent from 2000 to 2008, sinking from 26,049 to 18,052

The Marine Life Protection Act, passed in 1999, called upon the state to redesign a designated system of marine protected areas (MPAs) to protect the state’s marine life, habitats and ecosystems. But a regional approach to redesigning MPAs for the five coastal regions in California has taken more than a decade to implement and is still undecided, causing confusion among fishermen.

Additionally, the Marine Life Management Act, which became law in 1999, called for stricter changes in management and regulation of California fisheries.

With fisheries on the decline, regulations on the increase, and a crippling economy to boot, local commercial fishermen don’t see an easy channel for a younger generation that hopes to sail into commercial fishing.

According to national studies, the average age for a commercial fisherman is in the mid-50s. Russ Morgan, 54, has worked as a commercial fisherman for nearly 30 years within the Channel Islands.

“Very bleak,” said Morgan about the future of the commercial fishing industry. “What are the younger guys going to do to get into the industry? You almost have to be grandfathered in.”

For commercial fishermen to gain access to a fishery, they need to buy into it. A transferrable permit to a densely populated fishery can run upward of $75,000. But such permits are limited and are primarily held by fishers who have aged into the industry. The California Department of Fish and Game has placed limits on permits to reduce overfishing. In order to gain access to a potentially high-revenue fishery, a permit-seeker has to buy a permit from a fisherman who is looking to sell a permit. However, a permit to such fisheries is the livelihood for commercial fishermen and not so easily attainable.

“Guys who have them (permits) won’t sell or get rid of them because they want to finish their careers,” said Jerry Peters, 42, a commercial fisherman residing in Oak View, who considers himself as one of the youngsters. “So permit restrictions won’t put guys out of business, but how will the new guys get into it?”

Commercial fishermen account for $4 billion in national revenue. Locally, on the other hand, the work done by commercial fishermen is tangled in a love/hate relationship. The “catch of the day” is popularly advertised at local restaurants, but the majority of the catch is looked over in local markets and is shipped to other continents.

According to Carla Gunther, a Ph.D. in marine science from University of California, Santa Barbara, and a researcher at Penobscot East Resource Center in Maine, statistics show that 90 percent of spiny lobsters caught within the Channel Islands is exported. She estimates that 80 percent of catch from all local fisheries is exported, and well over the majority of fish consumed by county residents is from Asia or Mexico.

Seafood connoisseurs, suggested Gunther, don’t support local seafood in the respect that local farmers receive support for their produce. The seafood industry, said Gunther, didn’t get included in the “buy local” campaigns along with produce.

“For local produce, people are willing to pay extra,” said Gunther. “But not for seafood. It doesn’t have the advertisement or push because of the notion that oceans are overfished and fishermen are the pillagers of the sea.”  

Gunther said that it may have to do with ownership. Unlike farms, the ocean is a public resource and nobody should have exclusive rights, and it may seem as if fishermen are stealing from the public, she suggested.

“The local farmer holds the halo, but the fisherman holds the devil’s horns,” said Gunther. “They’re not treated the same in the political structure.”

Morgan agreed. Each week, Morgan sells his commercial catch at the Ventura harbor Saturday seafood market. There used to be more than 100 people in line for fresh seafood, but now the number of people in line is closer to 30.

“People hear about fisheries, but still go to the store and buy fish from unregulated waters in Asia,” said Morgan
Fishermen, said Sutton, bear the brunt of the ocean’s ecological criticism.

“They don’t go after the polluters,” said Sutton about federal ocean regulators. “Everybody that lives on the land is harming the resource too. Pesticides from the farmers go into the rivers after it rains. But it’s easy to catch a fish and have them say it is one too many. But how many are they killing that they don’t know about? This is our business, this is our backyard. We are the protectors.”

If one thing is for certain in the fickle currents of fishing, rough waters are ahead for the commercial fisherman. 

shane@vcreporter.com