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Between the Rockfish and a Hard Place

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

On Dec. 15, 63-year-old Ngu Van Dang set out from Ventura Harbor aboard his gill net boat, Viet Long, headed for the east side of San Nicolas Island in search of bocaccio.

The Ventura resident caught about 4,000 pounds of the bright orange rockfish, well under the federally imposed limit--30,000 pounds per month.

But that was 1996.

When he returned to port Jan. 6., it was a new year, and the federal government, reacting to a steep decline in bocaccio, had imposed new limits.

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Under the new regulations, fishermen may catch no more than 4,000 pounds of bocaccio a month, so Dang was already at the limit. When he went out again, returning to port Jan. 26 with an additional 4,000 pounds, he was over the legal limit.

State Department of Fish and Game Warden John A. Castro met the Viet Long on the dock. Acting on behalf of the federal government, Castro seized the fish and impounded the $1,600 paid for it by local fish processors.

Dang and other fishermen are running up against tougher fishing regulations, imposed as the piscine populations dwindle on the West Coast under the weight of increased consumer demand and changes in the environment.

Limits are set by the Portland, Ore.-based Pacific Fishery Management Council, a branch of the Commerce Department that oversees all commercial fishing on the West Coast, said fishery management coordinator Jim Glock.

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Officials say limits on other species--especially the sable fish, and the long-spine and short-spine thorny head--have also resulted in seizures and fines, although the Dangs’ case was a particularly large seizure.

The council meets throughout the year and announces its limits to federally licensed fishermen in a newsletter and through publication in the Federal Register.

The last change occurred in October 1996, and bocaccio fishermen were hardest hit, Glock said. The stock of fish below Cape Mendocino, near Eureka, is believed to be only 20% of 1970 levels, so limits were set to give the fish a chance to come back.

“The scientific information indicates that the stock of bocaccio is severely depleted, probably not due to fishing, but environmental changes,” he said.

In 1996, the allowable harvest south of Cape Mendocino was 1,700 metric tons; fishermen caught just 440 metric tons, according to Glock. Despite higher limits in the three preceding years, the catch dropped from 1,886 metric tons in 1993 to 957 in 1995.

“These amounts are just an indication that the bocaccio are just not there. The stock has been in pretty steep decline,” Glock said.

The 1997 limit was announced in October, Glock said, and “The word of the limit has been out on the street since then.”

Some fishermen say a newsletter and publication in the Federal Register isn’t enough notice. Danny Dang, 30, owner of the Viet Long, said neither he nor his father was aware of the changes.

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But others say checking the new limits is part of the job.

“There are certainly flaws in notifying the average public in what is happening in laws and regulations,” said Rod Moore, executive director of the Portland, Ore.-based West Coast Seafood Processors. “But what the council does and the three states do to make notification of changes to the industry is pretty good.

“If I was aware that there was a potential for change in regulations that could affect my business, it would be incumbent upon myself just to check to make sure.”

The money paid for the confiscated fish was put in a holding account until the case is adjudicated. After Castro finishes his investigation, he will turn the case over to the Ventura County district attorney’s office for prosecution.

If prosecutors file charges and the department wins the case, the money will be deposited in the state Fish and Game Preservation Fund.

Should the department lose the case, the money will be returned to the fisherman.

The work is hard, and fishermen take losses even harder.

On the day of the seizure from the Viet Long, crew members were unloading their catch, which included the 4,000 pounds of bocaccio and other fish stacked five feet high in ice in the hold of the boat. Employees from a local fish processor moved the large containers by forklift to the nearby processing plant.

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At one point, the elder Dang stepped off the Viet Long, holding a tattered, duct-taped map of the Channel Islands. He pointed to the area near San Nicolas Island where he casts a giant gill net.

“I work 15 days in the ocean,” said an angry Dang, fighting back tears. “A lot of wind, a lot of rain. I work hard. My boat take water over, water over, water over,” he said, using his hands to show how waves crashed onto the deck.

While his father unloaded the fish, Danny Dang looked on in disbelief as the bocaccio portion of their catch was seized.

“We can’t afford to lose the fish,” he said.

The Dangs have fished off the Ventura County coast for eight years, and no other gill net boat in the area targets more rockfish, according to Castro.

In all that time, he and his father have operated by the rules, said Danny Dang, who believes they are being singled out for not knowing the law. “My father was out in the water when the law went into effect.”

But Glock noted that other fishermen are fined and have their catches seized.

“There’s no way we can get a personal mailing to every fisherman because sometimes we don’t know who they are,” Glock said.

Whether a boat is at sea or in port when the laws change, it is still the responsibility of fishermen to keep up with changes, according to Glock.

“I can understand their frustration,” said Castro, as the crew continued unloading the confiscated fish. “In all fairness to the fishermen, there are a lot of laws that they are required to abide by. I don’t like having to do this. But fishing is not a right, it’s a privilege.

“The resource belongs to the people of California, and we have to be fair to both the fishermen and the people of the state.”


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