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Time to face a dirty little secret

My FIRST TRIP deep-sea fishing off Southern California was so disappointing that I quit early -- the only time that has ever happened.

Fishing is my passion. From the shore or from my bass boat, I’ve taken fish out of most every lake and many of the streams in the region. I caught a few that day at Anacapa Island, as did the other anglers, but they were puny rockfish that fought like 12-year-old vegetarians. The ocean has spawned legends of creatures swallowing tall ships, but I’ve caught bigger bass in freshwater than the fish taken that day in the Pacific. I did not respect those fish; I pitied them.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. May 4, 2005 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday May 04, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 54 words Type of Material: Correction
Vintage photo -- The Wild West column in the April 19 Outdoors section, about the decline of big fish in coastal waters, described tuna shown in a photo with the article as having been caught off the Santa Monica Pier. They were caught in Santa Monica Bay from a boat operated from the pier.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday May 10, 2005 Home Edition Outdoors Part F Page 3 Features Desk 1 inches; 44 words Type of Material: Correction
Vintage photo -- The Wild West column in the April 19 section stated that tuna in a photograph accompanying the column were caught off the Santa Monica Pier. The fish were caught in Santa Monica Bay from a boat that operated off the pier.

It is one of the dirty little secrets about fishing off Southern California: The great fish -- the ones you have seen in vintage photos, the ones capable of pushing man and gear to the breaking point -- are largely gone from our shores.

Most people in the saltwater angling community know this secret. Skippers whisper it out of earshot of customers. Biologists have documented collapsed fisheries. The government passes regulations to check the decline.

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There’re still many fish out there, including big ones, and I’ve caught some of them but I wish there were more. Not only for the thrill of the catch but to assure me that all is well in their world beneath the waves.

Today’s Outdoors section celebrates the pleasure and remarkable diversity of fishing in Southern California. Yet to fish without regard for the troubled state of the ocean is irresponsible. I’m haunted by the words of Teddy Roosevelt when he spoke to the next generation of sportsmen nearly a century ago: " ... you will want what nature once so bountifully supplied and man so thoughtlessly destroyed; and because of that want you will reproach us, not for what we have used, but for what we have wasted.”

Old-timers are best able to tell the tale of the glory days, of big, strong, plentiful fish. They were witnesses and participants in this tragedy of the commons.

Bill Beebe, 78, of Mar Vista caught mackerel and barracuda from the Santa Monica Pier and sold them for nickels and quarters as a boy before he started writing about fishing after World War II. His Aunt Jo landed black sea bass from the Venice Pier in the ‘30s. He caught big halibut early in the morning, then albacore later, on half-day boats seven miles out from Santa Monica Bay in the 1950s. He sent me a photo from that era of guys who caught beefy bluefin tuna from the Santa Monica Pier, near-shore action today’s anglers can only dream of.

Milton Love loved to go ocean fishing as a kid. As a deckhand, he helped anglers haul in thousands of jumbo cowcod at Hidden Reef near Santa Barbara Island during the ‘60s. Those hot spots are wiped out now. How does he know? Because he’s a marine biologist at UC Santa Barbara and has logged more miles in a research submarine off the Southern California coast than anyone. He sees intact habitat, but he also sees reefs littered with beer cans and lead sinkers and gouged by trawlers. He seldom sees big fish. “Overfishing in general has wasted this fishing,” Love says. “You can only pound it for so long and then they’re gone.”

So panged by guilt was one old salt, the late Jim Donlon of Camarillo, that he formed the Channel Islands Marine Resource Restoration Committee in the mid-1990s to request that the California Department of Fish and Game close much of the Santa Barbara Channel to sportfishing.

Why would an angler spend his final days working to close waters he had fished for half a century? “Areas that used to produce an abundance of fish today,” he told me, “either produce nothing or fish so small they are barely able to spawn.” The government agreed, and in 2003 closed about 20% of the waters around Channel Islands National Park.

Now California seeks to expand fishing exclusion zones and other forms of protection, from Mexico to Oregon by 2011 under the Marine Life Protection Act. Similar closures to protect cowcod are in effect from the Cortez Bank to Santa Barbara Island to San Nicolas Island.

Yet most saltwater anglers -- led by United Anglers of Southern California and the Sportfishing Assn. of California -- are conflicted. On the one hand, they endorse conservation but oppose extensive closures. They accept new regulations, though all the rules now on the books have failed to protect the fish. They blame commercial fishing, but mounting evidence suggests that sportfishing is a significant contributor.

Whether trawlers, long-liners or rods and reels wrecked fish stocks is no longer relevant. When the house is burning, you put the fire out; you don’t look for the matches.

To be fair, sportfishing industry leaders prefer seasonal fishing and catch limits, building artificial fish habitat, rearing and releasing white seabass and fighting incursions by commercial fishermen.

But new studies by Duke University and UC Santa Cruz biologists are clear: Only fat, female fish make enough eggs and healthy larvae to sustain fisheries. (For example, a 20-inch bocaccio rockfish will produce nearly 200,000 larvae, while the same fish a foot longer produces nearly 2 million.) And many scientists believe no-fishing zones are the only way to ensure survival of big fish.

The sportfishing industry knows the status quo is not working well, but “they don’t want to admit it. They’re afraid of losing their last chance to go fishing,” Beebe says.

Anglers need big fish, not for dinner but to connect with this power in nature. When an angler hooks a fish, he is connected. It is a link not passively observed but a more mysterious, more intimate experience, speaking volumes about the strength and frailty of the world around us. Getting pinned to the rail, feeling your forearms burn and your legs quiver, knowing the brute on the other end of the line has spun you completely out of control, are moments of revelation.

To engage such a life force and triumph is no less exhilarating than surmounting a summit, careening through Class V whitewater or skiing a black diamond run.

Hemingway understood this when he put these words on the lips of Santiago, the beleaguered angler fighting the great fish he feared might kill him in “The Old Man and the Sea”: “He is wonderful and strange and who knows how old he is. Never have I had such a strange fish nor one who acted so strangely ... we are joined together.... Fish, I love you and respect you very much, but I will kill you.”

If only more anglers today had the opportunity to utter such a blessing on their quarry.

Gary Polakovic, an assistant editor for Outdoors, can be reached at gary.polakovic@latimes.com.


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