Bill to Help Colorful Fish Gets Hook After Panel Hears It Isn't in Danger

TIMES STAFF WRITER

An Assembly committee scuttled an Orange County lawmaker's efforts Wednesday to have the garibaldi, the flamboyant-hued fish that frequents Southern California waters, named the state's official saltwater fish and establish a six-year moratorium on its capture.

The Assembly Ways and Means Committee killed the measure by Assemblyman Bill Morrow (R-Oceanside) after hearing arguments from commercial collectors and aquarium hobbyists that the bright orange fish does not need protection.

Proponents of the bill blamed the defeat on partisan politics. The 23-member panel voted 10 to 7, failing to achieve the 12 votes needed to push the bill to the Assembly floor. Democrats cast all seven votes against the measure.

"I am stunned," said Jim Hall, a spokesman for Ocean Futures, a Huntington Beach group pushing for protection of the garibaldi. "Apparently, some people couldn't see past their party politics."

Morrow, however, said the bill may have failed more because of circumstances than partisanship. The assemblyman, whose district includes parts of south Orange County, said he had enough votes but that several committee members who support the measure were busy in other hearings and failed to show for the Ways and Means hearing.

"I'm reluctant," Morrow said, "to suggest this is some sort of partisan punishment."

Opponents said the bill, which in March sailed through the Assembly Wildlife Committee on an 8-4 vote, was ripe for defeat because the garibaldi is not endangered.

"There's no sound basis in science for protecting this fish," said Steve Robinson, owner of a Los Angeles firm that imports and exports aquarium fish. "The numbers of garibaldi are quite acceptable."

Robinson said the market for the fish among aquarium aficionados is relatively limited, in part because the garibaldi is a "belligerent" creature that makes a bad tank companion for other species. "This is not a mass-market fish," he said. "The market demand is low enough to keep the collectors from taking too many."

Officials at the state Department of Fish and Game said they have no evidence that commercial collecting has seriously depleted the garibaldi population. A total of 104 aquarium permits were issued last year, with about 108 pounds--approximately 462 adult-sized garibaldi--reported legally caught.

But boosters of Morrow's bill contend that far more fish are being taken than the Fish and Game Department has recorded. Most, they suggest, are going overseas to fill private aquariums in Asia, where their brilliant color makes them prized as symbols of long life and prosperity.

Hall also noted that a lobbyist for the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council weighed in on behalf of opponents of the bill. In addition, he questioned why collectors would lobby so hard against the measure if it is true that fewer than 500 garibaldi are taken each year.

"If they were only taking a few hundred fish a year, we wouldn't be seeing the problems we're seeing," Hall said. "In some areas they're endangered right now."

Morrow argued that depletion of the fish in Southern California waters could have an impact on the scuba industry. Scuba divers welcome garibaldi for their photogenic colors. The assemblyman said an outright ban on collection permits would cost the state only about $6,000 each year.

Named after Giuseppe Garibaldi, an Italian general who wore garish tunics, the fish stick to shallow waters off the coast of Santa Catalina Island, Laguna Beach and other spots along the Southland coast.

During the past two years, state lawmakers have enacted legislation banning the collection of garibaldi off Catalina until the year 2000, when the western side of the island is to reopen to collection. Legislators also restricted collection during November, December and January and imposted stiff permit fees for collectors and wholesalers ranging from $330 to $1,000 a year.

Robinson said there are only about three licensed collectors now working in Southern California waters. The fish are captured with a vacuum device.

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