Last week, the Joint Committee on Fisheries and Aquaculture held its Annual Fisheries Forum to discuss the strained status of our fisheries and the challenges faced by fishing communities. As California acts to restore its fisheries, we must make sure we are funding the very people who enforce the laws intended to protect our fisheries: game wardens.
Game wardens are understaffed, over worked, and under employed. Without game wardens, our fisheries restoration efforts risk failure and we will be asking the fishing industry, California tribes, and recreational boats to sacrifice for nothing.
With the implementation of the controversial Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA), California’s restrictions on fishing are stronger than ever. In an effort to restore our fisheries, fishing is now prohibited along vast stretches of our coastline, called Marine Protection Areas (MPAs). MPAs have forced fishermen and entire communities to make an immediate sacrifice of their livelihood for the future greater good. They must stand by and give up making their living from the sea in hopes of restoring the fisheries to better health.
If MPAs are to be effective in restoring fish populations, they must be protected from poachers. Otherwise, they risk becoming what some are already calling “Marine Poaching Areas.” As last week’s hearing revealed loud and clear, California must do more to support the men and women on the front lines of this fight. Yet, Fish and Game wardens have long been underfunded.
According to testimony from Director of the Department of Fish and Game, John MacCamman, California should have 1,000 game wardens. Instead, we have only 385 sworn positions, or about 1/3 of what we should have to meet our current needs. This staffing problem is exacerbated by the three furlough days that the governor has imposed on state workers, which has reduced staff hours by some 15%. Adding new MPAs will only make this problem worse.
What’s at stake? McCamman cited a recent example from Sonoma County where wardens stopped 147 cars on suspicion of poaching. Of those 147 cars, 43 had been poaching abalone. With nearly 30% of these cars caught poaching, imagine how many others evade consequences for shamelessly breaking the law. Imagine how much damage that does to salmon and steelhead restoration efforts along the coast or the protection of threatened green sturgeon in the Delta.
It is astonishingly counterproductive to undercut our long-term fisheries restoration needs with enforcement done on the cheap. It is unfair to require law abiding fishermen to make another living or find another hobby while poachers run free. It is immoral to ask Native Americans to stand by while they literally watch law-breakers get away with poaching their traditional fishing grounds. When we are asking others to make enormous sacrifices, its only fair that the state meet its responsibilities too.