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Thursday, June 21, 2018
Lead Masters lives on

Local flea cods and pocket whitefish on tap!
WON Central in San Clemente recently received a letter of dismay from a disappointed Arizona angler, Robert Huskey, who had recently fished a local boat. Just to boil down his concerns some, the ones that caught my eye were:

— Many small fish were tossed back to float away and be eaten by waiting birds. This is wasteful and "ILLEGAL."

— Fish and Wildlife data takers were there witnessing it and when asked, responded that what Husky was seeing was usual.

— Most of the fish being caught were small, most too small and a waste to fish for, ruining the potential of the fishery and the fishery should be shut down immediately to recover.

— "WON, as the primary information leader in the area, should immediately get out in front of this situation and lead the fight to sustain our cherished fishery."

DATA ON ROCKFISH catch rates. This graph compares fishing spot accessibility to the catch rate experienced there. It's clear the harder to get to stuff bites better and isn't fished nearly as hard as the easy spots. Here, "accessibility" is a function of distance from the dock, depth and how often bad weather took the spot off the menu. These data were gathered between 1979 and 2000, prior to the extensive federal fisheries closures (RCA and CCA) and state MPAs.

I'm pretty sure what Huskey witnessed was a unique example — just a bad day at Black Rock, but let's take a closer look at what he said. I'll start with #1.

1. Tossing back fish dead IS illegal. It's called "waste of game." Waste of game is one of the most egregious of resource violations. When it's big game shot and left without any attempt to retrieve, it is perhaps the only resource violation that's a felony on its face, regardless of the value involved.

This particular situation hits home hard, because it was my work, and the work of other scientists and industry leaders I worked closely with over the years, that convinced managers descending devices were effective for releasing rockfish caught in deep water. That's the principal reason we are allowed to fish as deep as 60 fathoms now.

Leaving a string of floaters for a disgruntled passenger to photograph and publish on social media is about the stupidest thing anglers and crews can do. It's illegal. It's bad for the resource. It's bad for our public image and it's bad for our continued access to fish deeper waters.

2.  Fish and Wildlife surveyors are mostly recent graduates and graduate students working for the Department and the CRFS (California Recreational Fisheries Survey) effort. They do not enforce the law. In fact, if they did, it would bias the data they so carefully collect.

Science works slowly. First data are gathered. Then they are analyzed and summarized. Then the work is reviewed for omissions and errors in fact and interpretation. Then it is published. Next it might be used by decision makers who promulgate regulatory changes. If proposed, regulatory changes are subject to their own review process. Finally a date is set for any regulatory changes' implementation.

When CRFS people see us doing it wrong, they're not there to police people. But you can bet, someday we will all pay the price, just not right away. The price might just be no fishing deep water because it's unreasonable to expect us to do it right. The simple fix is DO IT RIGHT!

3. Most of the fish were too small and fishing for them was a waste of the resource. Here it's clear that Mr. Huskey doesn't know what most of us do know. Most local rockfish caught in wind-sheltered waters are small. In SoCal you have to fish in favorable weather on a 3/4-day or longer trip to see quality cods consistently.

The truth is it takes a red of 2 or 3 pounds or more to be mature. I must point out that most of the rockfish caught in SoCal 1/2-day turf are indeed juvenile — babies. There are no two ways about it and it's been that way since at least the 1970s. Plus, as you swing the finger of blame across other fisheries and gear types, stand in front of a mirror. In SoCal almost nobody but us recreational anglers target those local reefs for their bottom biters. It's just not worthwhile commercially, given the options.

However, it's equally clear the 1/2-day flea cod fishery is basically sustainable. It's been a fishery for sub-adult rockfish for at least four decades already and rockfish populations have been growing for the last two. The local fishery replenishes its baby supply largely via fish larvae coming in from other areas.

Basically, most baby rockfish starve or get eaten before they find their first reef. Locally, whatever survivors there are live until the first time they see a hook they can get their mouth around. Yet, if you dive local reefs it's not uncommon to see a small contingent of "smart" adult rockfish lurking and waiting for someone to show them a live squid.

So Huskey is right. It's mostly juvenile rockfish on the 1/2- and many 3/4-day trips. And wrong — not having many adults caught aboard the local party boats isn't necessarily the harbinger of a fisheries disaster.

In addition, a few of the species that end up being the most abundant on hard hammered local cod spots are simply small species like square spots. They're mature at sabiki size, but probably wouldn't be top dog on the reef if there was much competition. Nevertheless, essentially it takes an "outer island grade" rockfish to be mature.

So let's take another look at those CRFS folks. It turns out the vast majority of the fishing they survey is local. That's because most launch ramp based private boaters don't take their trailer craft to the outer islands. And those few crazies that do, don't go there to deep dip for cods.

Plus, despite being required to, the outer island bound party boats almost always find an excuse not to have a CRFS data taker aboard. How do you think that might affect managers' view of the resource, having almost all their data reflect local cod fishing?

4. Game-On! The best and most important advice is to use those descending devices — no floaters! Use it or lose it! Anglers should tie a Shelton's descender (or other big barbless hook, set similarly upside down) in the line. Send small stuff back next drop.

Deckhands — don't play up flea cods and pocket whitefish as worthwhile. If it's not heftier than a keeper sculpin it's pretty darned small. While flea cods are what they are — sack 'em if they want 'em, you're a fool not to encourage folks to release those tiny pocket whitefish. They'll usually swim back down on their own and they grow really fast.

Anglers — refuse to fish for fish you don't want to catch. Nothing lights a fire under Cappy's ass like a stern full of bodies butt-to-rail, arms crossed during a stop.

If you're told your bottom biter hook is too big, assume that what you're really being told is, your expectations are too big for the boat you're on and the area you're fishing. Consider spending the big bucks on an all-day or overnight trip next time. Maybe the Groupon deal isn't your deal anymore.

Finally – if we ever want local cod spots to consistently have big rockfish, Huskey is correct, we'll have to fundamentally change the way we manage the local cod fishery. It's really not clear though. The way it's being done now might actually provide the best 1/2-day benefit. After all, big fish eat little fish, so having big local rockfish could require having a lot less local fishing allowed — even in the long run.

Along the Central Coast their grade-large local fishery is largely managed for bigger cods by their malevolent weather gods. They dictate a.m. fishing only, with 1/3 of all days spent tied up.

Having 4 or 5 times as much rocky reef within an hour of the dock helps their cause too of course, as did their recent increase in legally accessible area.

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Merit McCrea is saltwater editor for Western Outdoor News. A veteran Southern California partyboat 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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