Environmental agencies and Monterey Bay trawlers propose exchanges between protected areas and fishing grounds
Bottom trawling is a traditional but controversial means of fishing that drags heavy nets along the seafloor, churning up and scooping in sand-dwelling fish like sand dab and halibut, along with everything else in its path. It has been described in some studies as being similar to a farmer plowing his fields.
The difference in plowing the floor of a place like the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary (MBNMS), however, is that much of it has taken millennia to develop, becoming one of the most revered and mysterious ecosystems on the planet.
But, thanks to ongoing research in the Monterey Bay and in offshore waters, new sections of the MBNMS’s underwater terrain have been identified by Oceana, an international ocean conservation and advocacy organization, and other research groups as significantly less vulnerable to trawlers’ dragnets than other, more complex areas. As a result, Oceana is proposing reopening sections to trawling in coming years on the condition that new closures be made in federal water fisheries outside of the bay, where highly vulnerable ecosystems have been discovered.
“We’re essentially looking at these areas as bargaining chips,” says Geoff Shester, the California program director for Oceana.
The areas that could be reopened in the MBNMS are primarily soft substrate, mostly void of coral shelf and major bio-diversity, but still productive fishing grounds for trawlers, he says.
“The idea is to trade areas that appear to be muddy and flat in exchange for these rich, complex, coral-covered canyon walls that are just epic habitats,” Shester says.
Shester says these soft-sediment flat areas being considered for reopening are still vulnerable to trawling, but not as severely as the coral reef zones.
“There’s relatively less impact,” he says. “It’s really a lesser evil. There’s less of a long-term impact in some places than in others.”
Trawling, a system fishermen have utilized in the Monterey Bay for the past 100 years, became heavily regulated in federal waters in 2006 by the Pacific Fishery Management Council (PFMC) and was outlawed in coastal California waters by the state legislature in 2005, though there are minor exceptions in Southern California.
After the closures in state and federal waters, about 40 percent of the MBNMS remained open to trawling, which Shester says seems like a lot, but left trawlers struggling.
Due to regulations and market pressures, trawlers in Central California have all but thrown in the towel. There are only about three trawlers left between Half Moon Bay and Morro Bay, but plenty of antagonism remains between the fishing community and environmental agencies, says Captain Jim Moser, a 40-year troller and member of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary Advisory Council.
“Most of the guys have been put out of business,” he says.
The current discussions of trade represent a break in a longstanding stalemate between fishing interests and environmental groups, Shester says.
“We’ve been at war, fully polarized,” he explains. “This is an opportunity for renewed peace talks. Now, maybe, we can have an arrangement that makes the fishermen happier and us happier, as well.”
Jiri Nozicka, the only trawler remaining in Moss Landing, says that there has been an approximate 90 percent reduction in the local trawling fleet since 2006.
He says environmental groups in California have “held fishing interests hostage.”
“We’re happy that these talks are happening, but we hope that it’s going to come in time when there is actually any fleet still left,” Nozicka says.
The meetings, which are taking place in Monterey, include trawlers, Oceana and other NGOs, the MBNMS, the PFMC, and the City of Monterey.
Monterey Harbormaster Steve Scheiblauer says the loss of trawlers has had big impacts on the City of Monterey, harbor infrastructure, and the fish market.
“In the last decade, in the Monterey Bay Area, we went from getting about 60,000 to 80,000 pounds of California halibut every year to 6,000 to 8,000 pounds,” he says, adding that, “When the regulations were put in place, years ago, they were very broad brush. This could lead to much more finely-tuned boundaries.”
The negotiations to reopen portions of the Monterey Bay to trawling in exchange for closures in federal water regions are piggybacking on a proposal that the MBNMS, headed by Superintendent Paul Michel, submitted on July 31 to the PFMC, which has similar goals but entirely in federal waters.
“We’ve kind of gotten to third base already,” Shester says of MBNMS’s July proposal. “And we’re deciding whether or not to take it all the way to home plate.”
The new concept of cross-trading between the Monterey Bay and federal waters, which does not yet have a specific proposal for regions, will go before the PFMC in November, at which point the council will decide whether it’s something they would consider moving forward with.
The trade off would grant more closures than reopenings—a ratio of about 150 square miles reopened to 250 closed, Shester says. Nozicka frowns on this aspect of the deal. “It’s almost two to one,” he points out.
The PFMC opens the door to new proposals on closures and openings in the federal waters every five years, which came around this year, says David Crabbe, a member of the council and commercial fishermen out of Monterey.
“We now have a lot of new data that tells about the habitat, so we’ve had some meetings with the Sanctuary on where we could improve protection for high-value habitat areas and open up high-value fishing areas,” he says. “It would be a win-win.”
The discussion of closing certain federal waters in exchange for opening state-regulated waters is an unprecedented one, so, Shester says, they do not know yet how viable it is.
“It’s kind of a big political crapshoot,” Shester says. “But we’ve realized that we can do this—the trawlers and conservation groups have gotten together and said, ‘Look, we can negotiate and compromise.’”
The danger, he says, will be how to get both the state and federal government entities to agree and fulfill their closures and re-openings in coordination after a deal is forged.
“If just the state opens the bay, but the feds don’t fulfill their part of the bargain, we get screwed, or vice versa,” Shester says. “It’s very tenuous, so both sides are going into it very cautiously.”
Shester notes that, while the MBNMS has federal protection, federal agencies do not impose fishing regulations in it, though they do have that authority. Because the state passed trawling laws in 2005, any reopening must go back through the state legislature.
In November, Crabbe says the PFMC will decide whether or not to move forward in evaluating Oceana’s closure proposals for federal waters. If they do move forward, there would be a full evaluation in 2014.
Shester says that if the federal proposals for the PFMC progress, and Oceana and trawlers can agree on a deal, they would go “arm in arm,” along with the City of Monterey, to the state legislature and express their support for very specific reopenings in the Monterey Bay. Shester says they would reach out to California Assemblymember Mark Stone, of the 29th District, to bring the state waters proposals before the legislature in 2015 and implement closures and reopenings by 2016.
“If everyone does agree and we have widespread Kumbaya,” Shester says, “then I think this could sail through the legislature.”
Shester says the proposal to open new area in the MBNMS is not an inconceivable compromise.
“We never said, ‘No, we will never allow any reopening of trawling in Monterey Bay—over our dead bodies,’” he says. “We just said, ‘We need to have a scientific program, assess what type of habitat it is, and what the effects of trawling are going to be.’”
Trawling Under the Microscope
The only form of trawling allowed in state waters is with Light Touch Trawl Gear in the California Halibut Trawl grounds, off the coast of Santa Barbara.
Reilly says the results of the study, which was conducted to determine the viability of future trawling in the Monterey Bay, will not be available until the end of the year.
He refrained from commenting on the effects of bottom trawling.
“Not many studies have been done on trawling and not enough information is available to say what it does and doesn’t do to the bottom,” he says.