Foes of Gill Nets Say Initiative Will Be on Ballot


Flanked by photos of mangled sea lions, Assemblywoman Doris Allen (R-Cypress) said Monday that she and her grass-root forces have gathered enough signatures to qualify a November ballot measure that would ban the use of controversial gill nets along the shores of Southern California.

The initiative would establish a “marine protection zone” by banning the use of the nearly invisible monofilament nets by 1994 anywhere within 3 miles of the coast stretching from the Mexican border north to Point Conception, as well as within a mile of the Channel Islands off Santa Barbara. It would also make permanent similar prohibitions already enacted along most of the coast in central and Northern California.

Allen said Monday that a volunteer army--composed mostly of recreational fishing groups and environmentalists--helped her $400,000 initiative campaign gather more than 1 million signatures. The Orange County legislator convened press conferences in Sacramento, Los Angeles and San Diego on Monday to announce that she and her troops were handing in the signatures, at least 595,500 of which must be found valid for a spot on the November ballot.

If it qualifies, the initiative is sure to touch off a hotly contested and emotional campaign pitting Allen and her recreational fishing allies against the politically powerful commercial fishing industry, which owns more than 480 gill net permits for Southern California.


Already, the commercial fishing industry is marshaling its forces to raise money and run a counter-campaign against charges by Allen that the gill nets are “indiscriminate killers” that “strip-mine” the ocean and kill off hundreds of marine mammals such as sea lions, otter, gray whales and harbor porpoises.

On Monday, Allen made no bones about the fact that her successful initiative drive depended heavily on emotional pictures and descriptions of how the gill nets can mangle and kill marine mammals. One anti-gill net brochure shows one woeful sea lion sporting deep, red scars caused by a net.

“Yes, they are an emotional issue,” Allen said about the pictures used as props at her press conference. “Yes, they are the most visible. Yes, they are what people will react to, and that’s why we put it out.

“It demonstrates in a dramatic way what’s being done in the waters off of Southern California,” said Allen.

As further proof, Allen cited the recent example of 52 dead sea lions, harbor seals and elephant seals that washed up on Coronado beaches late last month. Experts believed the animals were killed in gill nets, as were the 50 sea lions that floated to Orange County beaches more than a year ago.

But commercial fishermen say those assertions are an exaggerated, emotional smoke screen for the fact that Allen’s initiative would be a boon to recreational fishermen, who would love nothing better than to drive the competing commercial boats from coastal waters so that they can keep halibut and other delicacies for themselves. The losers, they say, would be California consumers, who would have to pay higher prices for seafood in restaurants and groceries.

“It’s just a fish grab,” said Craig Ghio, chairman of the California Fisheries and Seafood Institutes, as well as president of San Diego-based Ghio Seafoods. Ghio estimated that it would take at least $1 million to defeat the Allen measure.

The nets in question are monofilament nylon mesh that, used along coastal waters, are strung together in panels and weighted on the bottom so they unfurl up to 6,000 feet. Commercial fishermen like the highly efficient net, which gets its name because it traps and suffocates a fish by its gills.

But the nets have also caused “incidental” kills of several other kinds of marine life, including the endangered or threatened species of gray whales, marine birds, harbor porpoises and sea otters. Reported deaths of those animals have led to piecemeal closures of central and Northern California waters to gill-net fishermen over the years.

Yet Southern California remains open to gill nets, where fishermen inadvertently kill up to 3,400 sea lions and 600 harbor seals annually, according to the Department of Fish and Game. Since those animals are not listed as endangered, state fishing officials have declined to institute similar gill-net bans south of Point Conception.

Despite that distinction, Allen has been a long-time advocate of closing Southern California waters to gill nets. She has not only denounced the killing of mammals but contends the nets are wasteful because commercial fishermen throw back, dead or alive, more than 70% of what they catch--a figure disputed by state fishing officials, who say only 20% is thrown back into the ocean.

“There’s no excuse for using this type of gear to fish with because it is so wasteful,” Allen said. “It’s worse than dynamite.”

Allen’s attempts to get a gill-net ban enacted by the Legislature have been unsuccessful. Frustrated by what she calls the political power of the commercial fishing lobby, the Orange County Republican plugged into the network of recreational fishing groups and launched a grass-roots campaign yielding the 1 million signatures.

Although Allen said Monday that the campaign has received donations of as little as $2 at a time, she did acknowledge that it received a crucial boost of $100,000 from an anonymous donor who is a recreational fisherman.

She declined to name the donor, but said he would be identified on financial disclosure reports to be filed later this month.

If passed, the measure would also raise $3.4 million in special sport-fishing fees to pay off the 400 commercial fishermen who now hold permits to use the gill nets. The money is intended to help gill-netters, most of whom work Southern California waters, either find a new line of work or invest in a less-efficient kind of fishing gear, Allen said.