Along this city's colorful Fisherman's Wharf, in coffee shops and on weathered piers, the fishermen hang out and talk of how successful Mike (Candy) Mitchell, "Johnny T." Tarantino and Phil Battaglia have been at catching halibut.
Too successful, many competitors grouse.
Critics of the three, including recreational anglers and divers who hunt the tasty fish with spears, contend that they have seized upon a new law to gain an unintended and unfair advantage that allows them to trawl coastal waters. The breeding and nursery grounds within three miles of shore historically have been off limits to trawlers.
In the process, opponents charge, the three have been depleting the supply of prized California halibut, leaving little for sport fishermen or competitors, who must ply the waters farther out.
The issue has put the two sides on a collision course. Dozens of interested parties are expected to clash at a hearing this morning in Sacramento before the Fish and Game Commission, which will consider whether to renew the controversial permits. Opponents hope to exert enough "pier pressure" to bring the experiment to an end.
"This has gotten a lot hotter than anybody ever expected," said Patrick J. Flanagan, president of Standard Fisheries Corp., a fish-processing company on the wharf.
Even for the disputatious fishing industry, the current battle strikes many as a particularly emotional feud. It grows, in fact, out of an earlier tussle with environmentalists.
About four years ago, environmental groups, alarmed by the high mortality of sea birds and marine mammals that became entangled in stationary gill nets, succeeded in getting that gear outlawed. The ban put scores of small commercial fishermen, many of them Vietnamese, out of business.
State legislators quickly passed a law to encourage experiments with alternative gear that would efficiently catch halibut but not harm other species.
Significantly, anyone securing a permit under the program would be allowed within three miles of the coast, an area that for 60 years had been set aside primarily as a spawning and nursery ground for fish, crabs and other sea life.
In 1987, Mitchell, Tarantino and Battaglia, all longtime fishermen, secured permits and began experimenting with various types of gear.
They landed on an already proven method called the otter trawl, which scrapes a large net 200 to 300 feet wide along the ocean floor, stirring up the bottom-hugging halibut and chasing them into the net.
Sure enough. Otter trawling largely succeeded in protecting birds and mammals (despite its name, the method is not dangerous to otters), but opponents maintain that it amounts to a "vacuum cleaning" of the ocean floor that could be disrupting crabs and other species.
In the 1989 summer halibut season, the three fishermen hauled in about 100,000 pounds of the fish--an amount that previously might have taken dozens of fishing boats to gather, according to fishing industry sources. The catch sold for a hefty $2.25 to $3 a pound, about the same as salmon.
The issue has evolved from concern over sea birds and mammals to fears about the fate of the halibut population and other sea life.
"From our perspective, the gear's pretty clean," said Don Schultze with the state Department of Fish and Game's marine resources division in Sacramento. "But it's also extremely efficient. (It's now a) resource issue."
Nicola Ingargiola, a Sicilian-born fisherman who came to San Francisco 18 years ago, said he no longer is finding once-reliable pockets of halibut in the waters outside the three-mile limit.
The drag boat Maria, which he skippers, routinely in the past took in a few hundred pounds of halibut to supplement other catches. Now, he said, the few that he finds are not worth the fuel and the time. He charges that Tarantino, Mitchell and Battaglia are simply being greedy.
"I was born in the ocean; this is our future," said Ingargiola, whose brother Vince died aboard the fishing boat Jack Jr. when it was rammed by a tanker off Point Reyes in 1986. "They're going to ruin the fish. If it continues like this, it will be a hell of a problem."
Battaglia, who sports a flowing beard, counters that competitors "are just sore at us" because the three are able to use drag gear where the others are not allowed. He argued that several competitors were eligible for permits but chose not to go after them. (Ingargiola said he and other fishermen were never notified about the permit application process.)
"The way we're fishing is fine biologically," Battaglia said. "I feel we have a right to it."
Mitchell, his long reddish-blond hair streaked with gray, stood near his boat, the Linda Noelle, one morning last week, shaking his head and wondering, "What's the beef? Most of the other side is jealousy, not statistics."
For owners of "party boats" chartered by sport fishermen, the issue touches on both leisure and livelihood. Keith Fraser, co-owner of the Loch Lomond Live Bait Shop in San Rafael, said in the past few years the halibut catch for his two boats' customers "is probably down 90%."
"We have a dwindling halibut fishery, and to allow these netters to go in and devastate the fishery is ludicrous," he said.
Paul Turnbull, a diver, said the size of the individual halibut caught is also shrinking, with catches averaging 10 pounds, about half the size of those caught in the past. Some observers point to such evidence as another sign that trawling close to shore threatens to deplete the immature fish population.
But Schultze of the Department of Fish and Game pointed out that halibut supplies are cyclical. The big catches of the early 1980s, when gill and drag netters hauled in as much as 500,000 pounds, were bound to diminish, he contended.
"We've been on a halibut high for longer than most of us had expected," he said.
As a result, he noted, the department will recommend to the Fish and Game Commission that quotas of 80,000 to 100,000 pounds be imposed if the alternative gear program is allowed to continue. (The five-member commission, a regulatory body, has the authority to issue permits and to set regulations and quotas.)
Flanagan, a one-time advocate of the program who is now pushing hard to end it, said the law is not accomplishing what was intended--to find an environmentally sound type of gear that could support the business of many small commercial fishermen.
"I believe it's benefiting only a few at the expense of a lot," he said. "At this rate, there won't be anything left to catch in five to 10 years."