Rockfish, pictured above, have become more prevalent in Central Coast waters in recent years. | Courtesy of Yufay Chow

Barren sand stretched out for miles, the rolling dunes lying still under a blanket of dark, hazy blue.

Under the surface, a rockfish darted by, its spiny fins cutting through water as its bulging eyes scanned for cover from predators.

The rockfish found a safe haven. Ten years ago, it wouldn’t have been so lucky.

Trawling, a fishing method that involves dragging a net over the seafloor, had raked up much of the marine life around the Central Coast, leaving them without a viable habitat.

Commercial fishing around Morro Bay was landing all-time low harvests in 2007, with a grand total of 909,811 pounds of fish — including fish, crustaceans, echinoderms and mollusks — for the entire year, worth about $2.6 million, according to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Groundfish in the area were particularly at risk because of their potential on the market. (Groundfish are a classification of fish made of more than 90 different species, including rockfish, flounder, cod and some sharks, according to the Pacific Fishery Management Council.)

The community would have to respond or risk losing the marine population altogether. Seven years later, in 2014, commercial fishing around that same area boomed, landing a grand total of 7,185,470 pounds of fish, worth about $10.45 million.

Professor emeritus of political science Bud Evans said the improvement had a lot to do with a cultural change for the fishing community.  

“Well, (the fish population) was in a state of crisis, to the point of collapse,” Evans said. “And what changed … was going from a very centralized capitalist, profit-driven, individualistic enterprise, in terms of fishing, where the only goal was to take as much as possible … to a cooperative community effort.”

Evans was involved with the Community Based Fishing Association’s (CBFA) Exempted Fishing Permit project beginning around 2009, which allowed commercial fishermen to catch in the Morro Bay area if they agreed to take on sustainable practices, including using hook-and-line fishing, rather than trawl fishing; creating a harvest plan and sharing information; and having an on-board observer.

He said the cooperative program was inspired by similar work being done in Alaska.

“The Alaskan folks with their universities really worked out some slick stuff,” Evans said. “They brought it down here. And down here, there was a local community who wanted to do something and could get itself together enough, you know, with some contacts with some nonprofits … to get that working here with its local variations.”

It ended up being so successful that the same program was eventually implemented in San Diego. But initially, the shift was a hard sell, according to Evans.

“Of all the professions I’ve come across in my day, I think fishermen are about as independent, closed group as they come,” Evans said. “If somebody knew where the fish were, they sure weren’t going to let anyone else know because then everybody’s there. That was the culture.”

Approximately __ worth of fish were caught near Morro Bay in 2014. | Courtesy of Yufay Chow
Approximately $10.5 million worth of fish were caught near Morro Bay in 2014. | Courtesy of Yufay Chow

But Mark Tognazzini, owner of three seafood restaurants in Morro Bay and fisherman of 47 years, said fishermen were just complying with the law as they always have, not necessarily inciting widespread cultural change.

“Fishermen — we’re independent contractors, we do our own thing,” Tognazzini said. “I don’t know how fishermen could even work together. We don’t share each other’s catch. I think we work as well together as any other small food producers … They help each other out in the sense.”

Since the groundfish population fell in the 2000s, Tognazzini said the biggest change he’s seen has been, “Heavy government regulation — heavy, heavy, heavy government regulation.”

This includes marine protected areas (MPAs) implemented in 2007, which are government-sanctioned areas that permit limited human interaction.

Tognazzini said he doesn’t think the protected areas are necessary or fair, because the biggest threat to marine life in the area isn’t overfishing, it’s the booming sea lion population and Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant.  

The California sea lion population in the U.S. has grown rapidly, from approximately 10,000 in the 1950s to more than 300,000, according to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

“(Sea lions) don’t eat alfalfa, you know what I mean?” Tognazzini said. “California sea lions are overabundant and then they run roughshod because people have an affinity for sea animals.”

Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant’s cooling system pulls in millions of gallons of water, warming the surrounding ocean and killing sea life in the process, according to Tognazzini.

Meanwhile, Cal Poly’s Center for Coastal Marine Sciences (CCMS) is in the midst of researching those protected areas to determine the growth patterns of the fish and whether sustainable fishing habits have helped improve them.

The CCMS works on campus and from a pier in Avila Beach. Research assistant for the center Grant Waltz and his team have been heading out into the water by boat and catching fish to record their size, composition of species, health and age for two research projects with the help of the National Marine Fisheries Service.

But getting that data requires some messy work.

The age of a fish, as with trees, can be determined by growth rings. Also as with trees, the fish has to be cut into to find them. The growth rings are found on otoliths — part of the delicate ear bone structure that normally helps with orientation and sound direction — located behind the brain, according to Waltz.

When the age is cross referenced with the size of a fish, Waltz and the rest of the marine center’s team can determine the fish population’s size and age structure for the area — which is indicative of either a young and growing, or older and more productive fish population.

An older, larger-sized grouping of fish will have more eggs at a time, according to Waltz. From there, marine protective services and fishing groups can determine how large the population of fish in certain areas is likely to grow, and how much the area can be fished without being detrimental to the habitat.

While there has been significant growth in fish populations over the years, both Waltz and Evans said they think more needs to be done.

“Putting (the MPAs) in place was one step — a big, controversial step — now it’s: ‘What do we do with these areas? Are they productive? Are they doing what we want them to do?’” Waltz said.

The growing threat of climate change, which has been shown heighten ocean acidification and temperature according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) imposes a host of new challenges. This includes causing fish to move away from shore and farther north, where the water is cooler, according to a Rutgers University study. Waltz added that pressure on fishermen to keep bringing in high numbers, pollution and development on the coast also have the potential to damage marine ecosystems.

Evans said he thinks because of this, the movement toward sustainability is no longer viable.

“The word really is ‘resilience,’” he said. “Because, if we’re defining sustainable as carrying on what had existed in the past, that’s never, ever going to come back. It’s just impossible.”

One of the best things people can do to promote that, he said, is simply to become more informed: “People consciously becoming aware that the old game is over, and that it’s time to start adjusting and adapting — it’s past time, to start adjusting and adapting.”

Tognazzini agreed that sustainability isn’t an achievable thing anymore, but suggested that it never has been. It’s a buzzword that earned popularity in the same way that “organic” did.

“Sustainable really is — and most fishermen feel this way — it’s really an overused word,” he said. “It doesn’t mean a whole lot. Everybody’s got something ‘sustainable’ now.”

People can exercise their purchasing power to incite change — to buy fish they know were caught locally in an ecologically friendly manner, and to encourage bigger businesses in the area to do the same.

But Tognazzini warned that in a marketplace where consumers expect products that aren’t in season, people have to be willing to accept that their food may not have been caught with the environment in mind.

“You really have to look at the realism that we do impact the world,” he said. “If we’re going to continue to eat fish, or eat beef, or eat produce, there’s a cost of doing business … If you want to eat salmon in the middle of winter, you’re going to eat a farmed fish from some other country.”

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