By: Parimal M. Rohit
LOS ALAMITOS – A draft version of the Spiny Lobster Fishery Management Plan (FMP) could be made available to the public just ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday, it was announced at the Fish and Game Commission’s Marine Resource Committee meeting on Nov. 5 in Los Alamitos.
The FMP is being made available to the public as a courtesy while it completes a peer review process. A more in-depth discussion about the plan is likely to take place at the commission’s meeting in February, where rule-making deliberations would occur. The plan would also have to gain CEQA approval.
State officials hope the FMP, when finally enacted, would serve as an adaptive plan that stays current while those who recreationally dive or fish for lobster do not want the proposed plan to be restrictive.
“It will make management more efficient. It would give people fishing for lobster a little more predictability,” said Tom Barnes, a program manager with the Department of Fish and Game.
Barnes added the FMP would give both regulatory officials and recreational users the ability to react to any future changes to the fishery.
“We’re trying to keep the effort where we believe the fishery will remain sustainable,” said Richard Rodgers, a Fish and Game commissioner and recreational lobster diver.
While there are bound to be regional differences, Rodgers said the commission was pleased with how the Department of Fish and Game went about collecting community input for the FMP.
Rodgers also said hoop netters and poaching are the biggest issues facing the fishery. With respect to poaching, Rodgers said there are sting operations to monitor whether recreational lobster divers are illegally selling the spiny bugs as soon as they arrive onshore or from their boats.
The Lobster Advisory Committee (LAC) presented its recommendations to the state, reaching a “consensus on a broad policy statement for the fishery, a commercial trap limit and multiple recreational management measures.”
Overall, the LAC reached a consensus on policy objectives, including identifying and maintaining the proportion of catches, ensuring equitable changes, establishing controls to prevent unrestrictive growth, recognizing current differences and ending illegal commercialization.
While the FMP does address commercial lobster operations, the LAC did make several recommendations concerning those who hunt the spiny bugs recreationally.
Sarah Sikich, a scientist and policy director with Heal the Bay, said it was still too early to tell how the FMP will play out but the process so far did a good job of gathering stakeholder input.
A lobster diver for 20 years, Paul Romanowski said he hopes the FMP addresses his safety concerns. As a free-breath diver who does not use scuba gear when submerging into the water for lobster, Romanowski said he comes up for air every 60 to 90 seconds. He worries about how boats and divers interact, especially since most lobster hunting is done at night and it is not always easy to spot a diver or his small vessel.
In hoping for proper safety measures, Romanowski said the FMP appears to be heading in the right direction.
“I think at this point what they put forward for commercial reductions is most important and have the most impact in moving the fishery forward,” he said. “With recreational lobster fishing, I think it’s okay but I’m waiting to see more. I think it’s not too lenient.”
He added the number of people actually fishing for lobster has decreased, especially amongst hoop netters.
During LAC meetings, the major impasse existed between commercial interests and hoop netters, Sikich said.
Though details have yet to be finalized, the LAC recommended all lobsters caught recreationally should have its respective tails clipped.
“Lobster caught by recreational fisherman is being sold in the commercial marketplace. Requiring sport fisherman to clip or punch the center tail flap makes it possible for law enforcement to identify lobsters caught in a recreational fishery that end up on the market,” committee members said. “This proposal will give law enforcement a tool to address buyers and markets that purchase lobster from recreational fisherman.”
The use of mechanized pullers to rob lobster from commercial traps was also a significant issue. LAC members agreed to restrict mechanized puller use to persons who have a disability or medical permit.
Another possible change: the lobster season start time would move from 12:01 a.m. to 6 a.m.
According to the LAC recommendations, “The midnight opener creates a ‘rush’ mentality that fuels conflicts between recreational users and poses a safety risk. The current lobster opener date and time can be difficult to understand … and constituents are having trouble following the law.”
The LAC also recommended changing the language of current regulations to explain how a lobster could be caught instead of what techniques a diver should not use.
For example, instead of stating a diver or lobster hunter should not use a hooked device to catch a spiny bug, the regulation should say the nocturnal bottom feeder may be taken by hand only.
Finally, the LAC suggested hoop net floats should be marked with proper identification to improve safety and accountability among recreational lobster hunters and reduce illegal commercialization.
A proposal to set a seasonal limit of 70 lobsters caught failed to reach a consensus.
Once the peer and public reviews are complete, the Fish and Game Commission would weigh in on the draft FMP in February.
The earliest the FMP could come into effect is start of the 2016 lobster season.
“It’s a very long process,” Rodgers said, adding the commission has learned a great deal from stakeholder process.
One of the biggest challenges, Rodgers added, were how many agencies are involved in the process.
“The problem has always been in fishery management has been the agencies involved. The federal agencies have never been very good. They just don’t have the expertise,” he said.