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High-Tech Boat Is Docked : Expensive Research Vessel Won’t Sail Until Funding Is Found for a Crew

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Last week, in a casual sort of way, the California Department of Fish and Game was able to confirm the comeback of sardines, an important saltwater bait fish.

“We saw ‘em schooling right in here along the dock,” Rick Klingbeil said at the DFG’s regional office on the Long Beach waterfront.

For the past five years, the DFG has been hearing reports of “unusual quantities” of sardines.

“But from a scientific point of view, it’s hard to quantify that,” Klingbeil said.

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For that, you need a research vessel.

The DFG has such a vessel--the Mako, one of the best. New. Eighty feet. Lots of high-tech equipment. Cost about $800,000.

All it needs is a crew to run it.

So, hire a crew.

Not so fast. Since the boat was ordered two years ago, the DFG has run into critical money problems and instituted a hiring freeze. Officially, even Klingbeil doesn’t have a job. He is acting program manager for marine resources because the position was eliminated in Legislature-imposed budget cuts this year.

Gene Fleming, the DFG’s assistant chief deputy for marine resources in Sacramento, said: “A couple of years ago, when the legislature was considering authorizing the department to buy this vessel, the revenue picture looked a lot better (and) the money was found.

“At that time we didn’t set up to crew it because we didn’t have a boat (yet). Then when we started to do that toward the end of last fiscal year, say, in February and March, we were having funding problems.”

Even current bail-out legislation to restore some DFG programs isn’t expected to help the Mako.

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So, since being delivered from its Alabama builder in July, there sits the Mako, state of the art and spiffy DFG blue with the yellow logo on the bow, tied up at the dock.

Ken Mais is the boat’s primary designer and caretaker. During 34 years with the DFG he was a marine biologist and head of the ocean fisheries sea survey. Now retired, he works as a consultant and spends most of his time fussing over the boat.

It has a 500-horsepower Caterpillar diesel main engine, a 225-horsepower auxiliary to run the hydraulic systems, which include two large trawling winches; a 40-kilowatt generator, two radar systems, sonar, color depth-sounder, two Loran-C navigational devices, with video plotter; a laboratory for scientists and bunks for 12. A fuel capacity of 14,000 gallons will allow it to stay at sea for about 35 days.

Sitting in the roomy galley in air-conditioned comfort, Klingbeil, Mais and colleague Linda Nitsos lamented the Mako’s plight as a loss to commercial and sport fishermen.

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“We manage the resource for both users,” Klingbeil said. “We had a cruise planned to tag mako sharks off Southern California. We have a small experimental long-line fishery going on right now, which is very controversial because it’s a commercial and a sport fish, and, because it’s a shark species with slow growth, we’re concerned about that resource being impacted.”

Gill nets also are a concern. Conservationists claim commercial gill netters are taking significant numbers of sport fish and sea mammals incidental to their market fish. The DFG has said it lacks enough information to impose restrictions, so the issue’s fate will be determined by an initiative on the November ballot.

“Some people say the best way to find out what a gill netter is catching is to go out in a gill netter’s boat,” Klingbeil said. “That’s becoming difficult, and when you put somebody else on a boat it’s going to change the behavior of the fisherman and how he operates his gear, and you aren’t going to get as good information as you think.”

Surprise interceptions at sea are more effective.

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“But you need a boat to do that,” Klingbeil said.

At one time the DFG had three research vessels--the 100-foot N.B. Scofield, the 100-foot Alaska, and the 93-foot Kelp Bass.

“We’d go out and intercept gill-net vessels at sea and try to board them, if the fishermen would let us, and if not try to observe them pulling their net onto the boat,” Klingbeil said.

Said Fleming: “Through attrition, we lost all of those (boats). We have been contracting with commercial vessels to try to do our surveys and, for the most part, they have just not been adequate.”

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For a 28-day survey of sardine eggs last May, the DFG paid $94,759 to charter the Long Beach-based Yellowfin research boat from the state university system.

Fleming estimates that, including $160,000 in wages for a crew of four--master, motor vessel engineer and two deckhands--it would cost about $500,000 to operate the Mako for a year. It’s costing $6,000 a year just to maintain it at the dock.

“Chartering at first seemed cost-effective, although it wasn’t good in terms of planning,” Klingbeil said. “But then the quality of the boats became a problem. It doesn’t necessarily call for a vessel this nice to do that work--you don’t need trawl gear--but in terms of being out there for a length of time, being comfortable is pretty important.

“Right now we’d be taking the boat out to do some of the work Kenny (Mais) started back in the ‘60s with the Alaska, which is near-shore trawling for young fish--primarily the anchovy, sardine and mackerel . . . the forage fish for big-game fish.”

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With hard data, the DFG can project the quality of fishing for the next one or two years and set commercial quotas accordingly--or, if the resource is in danger of being depleted, it can stop commercial fishing temporarily.

Assemblyman Gerald Felando (R-San Pedro), who was instrumental in acquiring the Mako, said: “They try to do it on paper, and you can’t do it on paper.”

Felando’s constituency includes commercial fishermen. He complains: “We’ve slipped from being a research state to a law-enforcement state in fish and game. We should have kept pouring money into research so we have accurate and vital information and research data to establish quotas and limits on the resources in the ocean. There just isn’t revenue around for that kind of stuff.”

The Mako, built by Steiner Shipyard, Inc., of Bayou La Batre, Ala., was originally designed as a raised-fo’c’sle trawler.

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“When I found the hull, it was just the hull--no compartments or anything,” Mais said. “They were building it for some outfit in India, and I guess the guys just walked off. I don’t know what they were going to use it for. I went down last October and looked it over.

“It would have been a lot better about six or eight feet longer and a couple of feet wider. But it was pretty close.”

The boat was completed in May and sailed through the Panama Canal--and Hurricane Fausto--arriving in July. Since it was 45 feet tall, one concern was getting it to its berth under the Queen’s Way Bridge adjacent to the Queen Mary.

“We can only go under the bridge at low tide,” Mais said.

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This week, the Mako, with a temporary crew, made its maiden voyage for the DFG: a three-day cruise to Catalina to recertify the department’s divers.

How long before it sails again? Nobody knows.

"(But) everybody would benefit by it,” Felando said.


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