Natural Perspectives: Little ones inspire trip to the pier

People come from all over the world to visit the Huntington Beach Pier. But Vic and I seldom go there. We live in a vacation paradise, but we get so used to it that we don't take advantage of is as often as we should. That's just one reason why we like to have out-of-town guests. Their visits prod us into enjoying the touristy side of Huntington Beach.

Our guests this past weekend were from pretty close to home. And to our hearts. Our son Scott came up from San Diego with his wife, Nicole, and their three daughters, Allison, Lauren and Megan. We met them for lunch at Sandy's Beach Grill at the foot of the pier.

The 5-year-old twins, Allison and Lauren, ordered off the appetizer menu and had popcorn shrimp and a lobster timbale. They have pretty sophisticated tastes for 5-year-olds. Three-year-old Megan was more interested in the sweet potato fries than anything else. We all greatly enjoyed our meals. After lunch, we went for a leisurely walk on the pier. It was leisurely mostly because Megan and the twins wanted to stop every few yards to examine something new.

The beach was crowded with surfers, splashers and sunbathers. For me, the bright beach umbrellas and towels made a colorful mélange on the sand. I snapped a couple of photos with my BlackBerry so I could attempt to paint a watercolor of the scene at a later date. For Vic and the others, it was simply the huge number of people crowding the sand that made it an awesome sight.

The little girls were fascinated by the people fishing from the pier. That day, they all seemed to be catching the same species of fish. Slippery, silvery mackerel flashed at the end of one line after another as fishermen flopped their catches onto the pier. The girls jumped up and down and squealed, "Fish, fish" whenever a new one was hooked. Some fishermen had multiple hooks on their lines and were reeling in two and three at a time. It was an amazing sight to see.

I don't know much about pier fishing, but I expanded my knowledge by reading a bit of "Pier Fishing in California: The Complete Coast and Bay Guide to Shore-based Fishing" by Ken Jones. The Huntington Beach Pier has a nice write-up in the book. Jones tells fishermen what bait to use for different fish species and even how and where to cast lines.

At least two state records for largest fish caught from piers were set at the Huntington Beach Pier. One was a 5-pound, 8-ounce mackerel jack caught Sept. 1, 1988. The other was a bat ray that came in at a whopping 181 pounds, caught July 24, 1978. While a 181-pound bat ray is a huge fish, one weighing 240 pounds was caught in Newport Bay in 1957, according to Jones' book.

Vic and I often see fishermen reel in leopard and smoothhound sharks, guitarfish, bat rays and round stingrays at our pier. But I was surprised by how many other species of fish can be caught from there. Jones' book lists quite a few of them and the best location from which to catch them. Close to shore, the most commonly caught fish are barred surfperch, corbina, spotfin croaker, yellowfin croaker, sargo, stingrays, thornbacks and guitarfish. About mid-pier, fishermen try for California halibut, sole, turbot, sanddab, butterfish, tomcod (white croaker), herring, sand bass, jacksmelt, sculpin, mackerel, bonito, bat ray and larger sharks. Around the pilings, anglers look for pileperch, rubberlip seaperch, kelp and sand bass, halfmoon and opaleye.

While we were at the pier, a group of teenage boys caught a large bat ray. It must have been nearly 3 feet from wingtip to wingtip. They took it to the cleaning station and removed the two meaty wings, attracting quite a crowd. By the time we got to the front of the crowd, the ray's body had been tossed back to sea, and the boys had two wings that looked like shark fins.

I've had ray meat before, and it's as tasty as shark or scallops. I have no objections to the sport of fishing as long as people eat their catch. But I do object to the practice of catching sharks solely for the purpose of eating their fins. Commercial fishermen catch sharks and cut off their dorsal fins for shark fin soup, a delicacy in Chinese cuisine. As a result, sharks are being fished out of the seas.

According to http://www.stopsharkfinning.net, tens of millions of sharks are killed each year by the barbaric practice of finning. After their dorsal fins are removed, the living sharks are tossed back into the water to die a slow, agonizing death by starvation, being eaten or drowning. How can a shark drown in water, you ask? If they aren't in constant motion, they can't move water past their gills. And if they can't do that, they can't extract oxygen from the water. So they suffocate. It's a sad fate that awaits a finned shark.

A difficulty with regulating shark finning is that there is no way to tell if the fin came from a shark that was finned and tossed overboard, or if the rest of the shark was used as food as well. One thing that you can do to help stop the practice of shark finning is to avoid restaurants that serve shark fin soup. Vic and I like shark, but because the number of sharks in the ocean is declining so rapidly, we have quit eating shark meat.

Fortunately, fishermen at the pier generally eat their catches. If you'd like to try your hand at fishing from the pier, it's free and really easy. You don't need a license and don't even need to invest in a rod and reel. You can rent everything you need at Let's Go Fishing on the pier and buy your bait there too. Or you can just enjoy watching the fishermen land their catches.

VIC LEIPZIG and LOU MURRAY are Huntington Beach residents and environmentalists. They can be reached at LMurrayPhD@gmail.com.

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