Sep 4 2014

D.B. Pleschner: State’s wetfish industry solid, sustainable


Despite gloomy predictions of El Niño and the broader impact of climate change on the ocean and planet, California’s historic wetfish fisheries carry on – still the foundation of California’s fishing economy.

More than 150 years ago, Chinese fishermen rowed Monterey Bay at night in sampans, with baskets of burning fat pine on the bow used as torches to attract market squid, which fishermen harvested with round-haul nets.

This was the modest beginning of California’s “wetfish” industry. The immigrant Asian, Italian, Slavic and other nationalities of fishermen who came to America introduced new fishing methods.

Around the turn of the 20th century, Sicilian immigrants to Monterey brought their lampara nets, another type of round-haul net, and launched what would become the largest fishery in the western hemisphere – California’s famed sardine industry, popularized in our collective conscience by John Steinbeck’s “Cannery Row.”

It was the plentiful schools of fish – especially sardines that stretch from the Gulf of California to Alaska – that provided opportunity for generations of enterprising fishing families to prosper. The complex of fisheries that make up California’s wetfish industry, including mackerel and anchovy as well as squid and sardines, helped to build the ports of Monterey and San Pedro, as well as San Diego and San Francisco.

Wetfish, now called coastal pelagic species, or CPS, have contributed the lion’s share of California’s commercial catch since before the turn of the 20th century.

Even back then, fishermen recognized that a sustainable fishery was good for both fisherman and fish. That’s why over the decades, fishing interests have supported marine protections based on sound science, and have contributed significantly to cooperative research. That tradition continues today.

In fact, today, coastal pelagic fisheries in California like squid and sardines are managed with strict quotas as well as numerous time and area closures, including a statewide network of no-take marine reserves. Fishermen are allowed to harvest only a small percentage of the overall fish population.

Current regulations require that at least 75 percent of CPS finfish must stay in the ocean to ensure a resilient core biomass, and the sardine protection rate is even higher at about 90 percent.

In addition, squid fishing is closed on weekends (squid live less than a year and die after spawning). And about 30 percent of squid spawning grounds are also closed in reserves.

What’s more, to preserve the quality of the catch, fishermen typically fish day trips nearby the ports. This makes California’s CPS fisheries among the most efficient and “greenest” fisheries on the planet with one of the lowest carbon footprints in the world.

For example, wetfish fisheries can produce 2,000 pounds of protein for only six gallons of diesel fuel.

Beyond the history, the culture and the sustainability, California’s CPS fisheries contribute essential revenue into local port communities.

Wetfish fisheries are an important part of California’s fishing economy and squid is California’s most valuable fishery. Statewide, these fisheries represent more than 80 percent of all landings and close to 40 percent of dockside value of all fisheries in the Golden State.


D.B. Pleschner is executive director of the California Wetfish Producers Association, a nonprofit created to promote sustainable wetfish resources.

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