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Tuesday, December 12, 2017
Northeast Santa Ana winds
Tuesday, January 2, 2018
Winter bass

Cods from isolated high spots okay?
Captain says we have to release rockfish if we want to keep fishing bluefin here. Somehow it is common knowledge keeping rockfish on tuna trips can be sketchy, but no one is quite sure what the real rule is, much less why. One boat crew says the cod-keeping depth is no deeper than 120 feet. On another, we’re fishing over 300 feet for cods. What gives?

Over time, and especially with all the bluefin activity at the 60-Mile Bank, I’m getting ever more questions regarding MPAs, lines, and rockfish on offshore trips. As one who served as co-lead for the group that developed what would become known as the Fisher­man’s Proposal, in the SoCal MPA process, I gained a considerable background in no fishing boundaries.

THIS MAP SHOWS the myriad of regulatory demarcation lines, MPAs, and such a fishing skipper has to know and abide by. The federal point to point 60 fathom line is shown in tan. The Cowcod Conservation Areas are blue and boxy, One covers Santa Barbara and San Nicolas islands, the other, the 43-Fathom Bank. E-mail Merit McCrea if you would like a Google Earth file to load on your phone, computer or tablet for Christmas.

At issue is whether it’s legal to keep rockfish caught on far offshore spots in depths shallower than the “maximum depth.” There is a small group of sages than nail the correct answer consistently — guys like Captains Louie Zimm, Bob Fletcher, Joe Villareal, Buzz Brizendine and Ken Franke.

There is a common thread, and perhaps you can see it. These are all people who have worked closely with fisheries management at the federal level. I’m going to start with the basic complicated answer and follow up as to why, but without offering any opinion as to whether the “why” is a good why, or not. It’s just my general understanding of why things are.

There are a variety of special areas that have special regulations regarding rockfish and other “ground fish,” a list of bottom fish/benthic/demersal species as long as all your fingers and toes — plus.

CCA: The Cowcod Conser­va­tion Area consists of two patches of water. One is immense, encompassing Santa Barbara and San Nicolas islands, Hidden Reef, the Osborne, Tanner, Cortes and Cherry Banks as well as the open ocean Begg Rock. The other is smaller, but still huge, a square covering the 43 Fathom Bank. This square is missing its southeast corner, as it intersects the equally confusing and dog-legged offshore U.S.-Mexican border.

Within these two zones there are two primary rules, plus some subtle nuances regarding “slope” vs. “shelf” rockfish which I won’t delve into.

The first rule is no fishing for rockfish in waters deeper than 20 fathoms (120 feet). The second is no fishing for anything when you are in CCA waters deeper than 20 fathoms and have rockfish on the boat.

Why 20 fathoms? This closure was designated earlier than most, and waters of 20 fathoms and less were though to be certainly too shallow for cowcod, the intended benefactor of the closure.

Why no fishing at all with groundfish on deck? This was to make cheating more difficult, yet allow boats with rockfish aboard to travel within the expansive CCA legally.

If you are fishing the Cortes, up on top early in the morning, catching a few yellowtail, and some whitefish are caught, you’ll be asked to let them go. This is because, if bluefin pop out in 40 fathoms later in the day you won’t be able to fish them legally. You’d either have to break the CCA rockfish/groundfish rule or the wastage of game law.

Typically, if the outer banks game fish bite goes tragic, skippers will switch targets late in the day and fish shallow for bottom stuff before heading home. You may be bummed about having had to release a 5-pound whitefish earlier, only to end up with a few three pounders.

Then there is the RCA or Rockfish Conservation Area, which was established later. This is the “60 fathom depth limit” most are more familiar with. It’s coast wide. But this 60-fathom line does not follow the depth contour precisely. It’s “approximated” by straight lines drawn near the depth contour. And sometimes the boundary extends though waters deeper than 60 fathoms, sometimes shallower.

Most importantly, this poly-glomeration of interconnected straight edges does not circumscribe isolated high spots offshore, like the 12-Mile Reef. This is the bank running down the middle of the Santa Barbara Channel, and topping out at just 54 fathoms. It does not include the 60-Mile Bank.

Why dot to dot lines? Over time, thinking on policies had changed. Setting demarcation lines as depths was now seen as problematic for enforcement. There were a bevy of bogus excuses available and needing to have time wasted disproving. Defendants brought up tidal influence, differences in mapping and depth plotting, speculated about differences between fathometers and such.

A new boundary mantra came into favor, a GPS-based one. Boundaries needed to be noted by specific waypoints and the lines between them. No more lame excuses regarding the vagaries of charting and plotting and tides. Yet the die was already set regarding the CCA, so it has so far kept its 20-fathom depth limits and legal bottom fishing on isolated high spots.

The deeper depth limit of the RCA reflects better confidence regarding where overfished species intended for protection lived, compromise, and including newly documented success in releasing overfished deep-water species using descending devices.

The rules regarding the RCA are: “Take is prohibited seaward of the 60 fathom depth contour (360 feet), defined in Federal regulations (50 CFR Part 660, Subpart C).”

Both the CCA and RCA are largely within federal waters, read — beyond the California border. That’s the basics. The state regulations mirror or reference the federal ones, simple. But it gets messy.

The feds have very little enforcement presence, almost no gun-slinging, ticket-book toting, boots on deck. Outreach and enforcement is largely left to state wardens. And they’re cross-deputized to do so in federal waters. That works.

However, the feds do very little if any publication of recreational fishing regulations, also leaving that to the state. Now the mud tops the waders.

Because the regs are indeed complex, and within a sea of complexity, the DFW publishes 60 fathoms as the demarcation, within their regulations summaries. For example, “Lingcod may only be taken or possessed in waters less than 360 feet (60 fathoms) deep.”

Does this open the door to keeping bottom grabbers on the 60-Mile? Maybe, but online they do offer a link to the federal fine print quoted above. What’s more, it’s the same deal regarding fishing tuna in deeper water. With bottom biters aboard, no lines in the water where you can’t legally fish for them.

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Merit McCrea is saltwater editor for Western Outdoor News. A veteran Southern California party boat captain, he also works as a marine research scientist with the Love Lab at the University of California at Santa Barbara’s Marine Science Institute. He can be reached at:

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