I remember fishing like the ocean would never run out of fish. I’m 92 years old today, and I was 52 when the Magnuson-Stevens Act was written. Back then I didn’t know anything about it. It seemed like any other Washington, DC project happening at the time: far-out ideas a faraway place. I was more interested in going out and catching fish.
In the late 70s, we slammed the rockfish in northern California. Between sport fishermen who thought limits were for sissies and a commercial fleet that was really producing full bore, we put a major dent in the fish population. I, too, am guilty of having that attitude: Athey’re biting and I might not get another chance at ’em for a while, fill the boat, to hell with the limit.” At the time it didn’t seem to matter; next time we went, the fish were still thick.
In the 80s we started seeing real drops in the catch. The fish were getting smaller too. The days the fish were thick we figured all that stuff about conservation was overblown nonsense. The longer it went, the less it looked like nonsense.
The 90s showed us some serious drops in the creel limits. All that conservation nonsense started to make some sense, but we still thought of it as getting in our way. We remembered the “good old days” and resented the smaller limits, catch areas and season closures. We wanted those days back, but nobody wanted to admit that it would take a lot of hard work and sacrifice to get there.
In the early 2000s we saw the Canary rockfish become a “no take” species, and those fish used to be thick as thieves; we didn’t see as many as we used to. My favorite, the Yelloweye rockfish, also was off limits and remains so to this day.
We have nobody to blame but ourselves for how we got here. We won’t need to thank anybody else if we let these species recover, but we will have to take the blame from our great-grandchildren if we don’t.
Over the last few years there has been a glimmer of hope for the rockfish here in Northern California. We got back some of our catch limit and the Canary rockfish are allowed in the creel limit. Yelloweye are being caught and released, and we even use descender devices to improve survival of released fish.
We have these new glimmers of hope because of science and management. We are a nation of laws, even on the water, and the law needs to keep groundfish fisheries steered in the right direction. Fishermen, both sport and commercial, can only take so much per year; that’s defined in the Magnuson-Stevens Act. We all have to be accountable for our take of the resource. Commercial guys operate under some pretty tight rules. We sport guys need to remain under the rules that pertain to us as well.