Livelihoods on the Line : Fishermen Say Encinitas Refuge Would Devastate Them

Times Staff Writer

Randy Miller has been a commercial fisherman for a quarter of a century, plying his trade up and down the North County coast in his 26-foot boat, the Seaway.

It is not an easy business. Even with tricks of the trade gleaned from years on the water, Miller wages a constant battle to keep fiscally afloat. There are the whims of the weather, problems with poachers and the perpetual toll of the elements on boat and equipment.

Now comes a new challenge. Little more than a week ago, state legislation was introduced that would create a marine refuge along a half-mile strip of coastline in Encinitas, effectively putting it off-limits to commercial and sport fishermen, as well as divers looking for dinner.

Ecologically Rich Area

The bill, written by Assemblywoman Sunny Mojonnier (R-Encinitas) and championed by city officials, is designed to protect in perpetuity the ecologically rich area, prohibiting the harvest of all manner of marine life from the tide pools to a mile offshore.

Miller, however, sees the proposal as yet another shot across the bow of his profession.

"That's the best fishing reef in North County, bar none, absolute, period," Miller, president of the Southern California Lobster Fisherman's Assn., said one recent day. "It's a mortal blow to local fishermen. It would be devastating."

The unfriendly reception the legislation has received from local fishermen, who promise to fight the bill to the end, has taken Encinitas officials as well as Mojonnier by surprise. The proposal has been in the works since mid-1988 and, until now, no one had uttered a word of disapproval, they say.

"It's nothing we've hidden. This thing is months and months old," said David Wigginton, the city's community services director. "I think the fishermen have to look out for their interests, and I'm sure their concerns will be heard. . . . The intent wasn't to jeopardize anyone's welfare, the intent was to preserve an area of coastline for all people to enjoy."

The legislation would establish an ocean sanctuary stretching south from D Street at Moonlight Beach to the southern edge of Swami's, a popular surfing spot noted for an extensive reef system that stretches well beyond the breakers.

A rugged ocean outcropping, the reef serves as a feeding ground for a wide array of fish, and harbors perhaps the most abundant crop of lobster north of La Jolla Cove, which is already designated a marine refuge. Moreover, the tide pools that appear as the ocean recedes each day play host to sea anemones, crabs, sea cucumbers and other flora and fauna of the Pacific.

"At low tide it's beautiful," Wigginton said. "There's everything imaginable out there. You don't see the same things twice."

The bill was sparked by Encinitas City Councilman Gerald Steel, who pushed through a unanimous resolution in July, asking that the sanctuary be established. Steel has since moved to Washington state.

Given his marching orders, Wigginton approached Mojonnier's office with the idea. State Department of Fish and Game officials were consulted, and they advised the assemblywoman that the quickest avenue to secure a refuge would be through the Legislature instead of the cumbersome bureaucratic process.

State law protects about three dozen ocean sanctuaries. While the zones are open for scientific and recreational purposes, they are off-limits to fishermen and divers, with a strict look-but-don't-take rule enforced.

Vernon Goehring, the DFG's legislative coordinator, said the agency has yet to take a position on Mojonnier's bill, but suggested that the region off Encinitas is not a unique habitat nor does it play host to a specific plant or animal threatened by extinction.

No Endangered Species

"There's no particular species that's endangered there," Goehring said. "I'm not saying protection of tide pools isn't important, but it isn't to a point where there is an endangered species that is native only to that particular location."

Mia Tegner, a marine ecologist with the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, said she is unfamiliar with the spot under consideration, but supports the concept of marine refuges as a way of protecting the fragile ocean ecosystem.

"I think the general idea of reserves is a good one," she said. "It would be nice to take my grandchildren out and show them what an abalone looks like."

Tegner noted, however, that the sector "may well be the North County hot spot" for fishermen, meaning the anglers have "a legitimate gripe here."

"If fishermen say they have to have every square inch of coast, it's one thing, but if they say this particular spot is a source of livelihood, it's another," Tegner said.

Local fishermen, meanwhile, make no bones about it--the stretch of ocean off central Encinitas is the prime ocean acreage for anglers and lobster men in North County.

'Would Be a Disaster'

"There's a lot of guys who make their living off Swami's," said John Guth, a lobster fisherman for more than 20 years. "This would be a disaster for us. We've already had so many closures. If they take another, there's just not going to be that much there."

Jack Perdew, a lobster fisherman out of Oceanside Harbor, agreed. "I would rate it one of the best, if not the best," he said. "I hope the thing doesn't go through. I'm sorry that our legislators don't have the courtesy of checking with the people it would most affect."

Miller, a third-generation Encinitas resident and chief spokesman for the local lobster fishermen, suggested that the key flaw of the proposal is that it underestimates the ability of the ocean to renew itself when properly handled.

"We've got to ask why we are saving it," Miller argued. "Just to look at? The ocean is renewable if we manage it properly. It can serve the fisherman and the general public. To have it for one interest group is like saying the rest of us aren't good enough. . . . It's kind of utopian. They want to create a private pond off the city."

As a child, Miller lived with his family on the bluff overlooking Swami's. He recalls the days when a small wooden wharf extended from the rocky point. Miller grew up with fishermen all around. Later, he became a surfer, but turned to fishing for his livelihood when he realized his skills on a board would not put bread on the table.

He recalls years past when the lobster population off the coast had dwindled to record lows. A fisherman could throw as many traps as he'd like into the water, but the things would generally come up empty. The area was all but fished out.

Young Ones Can Escape

In recent years, lobster have rebounded, most notably because of new traps that allow the younger and smaller crustaceans, which will grow into next year's whoppers, to escape through a portal in the steel mesh, he said.

As a result, the past six years have been very good, said Miller, who also fishes for shark, sea bass, yellowtail and other fish after the close of lobster season, which begins the first Wednesday in October and lasts more than five months.

"I don't know how we'll fight it," Miller said. "We'll probably have to go up to Sacramento and deal with it there. It's not something that we haven't had to do before."

Such talk aside, room for compromise may remain.

Wigginton said his impression of the original intent of the proposal is that it primarily sought to protect the tidal areas off Encinitas. By spreading the refuge boundaries a mile out to sea, the legislation may have unintentionally snared the fishermen.

"If a mile is too far out, maybe we can negotiate it back in," he said. "But not having heard the concerns of those parties firsthand, it's hard to say what direction any action might take."

Chris Heiserman, an administrative assistant to Mojonnier, said the assemblywoman's staff was unaware of the fishermen's concern before introducing the legislation, but would be happy to arrange a meeting with all parties concerned.

"We certainly want to hear these people out," Heiserman said. "If they've got a legitimate beef, we'll want to put that on the scale, too."

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