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Uncertain Fishing Season Ahead For San Diego-Based Boats

— Captain Buzz Brizendine gently applies varnish to the mahogany rails of his ship, The Prowler. The ship is an overnight cruiser that takes passengers out for just over a day of ocean fishing.

This year's San Diego Sport Fishing season will be different from any that have come before. That's because huge swaths of ocean are off limits to anglers creating uncertainty among those who make a living from the ocean's catch.

These preparations are all designed to get ready for the season. If everything works well, these freshly coated railings will be packed with anglers this summer.

"We'll have people scattered around the rail here, that we're just now finishing up," said Brizendine. A full load is 30, but the ship can go out with fewer people. "The big box shaped thing behind me here is the bait tank. And we would have between 50 and 100 scoops of live sardines, primarily."

The Prowler is one of about 45 sport fishing boats working out of San Diego Bay. Yellowtail, barracuda and bass are how anglers know spring has arrived. But the fleet's books are usually balanced in summer when the Tuna are biting.

"It's the bread and butter of this industry," said Bob Fletcher, past president of the Sport Fishing Association of California. "And so the tuna season is absolute chaos here. Everyone's happy either coming in or going out."

But fishing is not easy. The ocean can be fickle. A temperature swing of a couple of degrees can push the key sport fish out of range for local boats. The recession also hurts. Customers are scarce and fuel is expensive.

"And there's been four or five boats already basically gone bankrupt here in San Diego, and if we have another bad year there will be more. And the MLPA has not helped," said Fletcher.

MLPA is the Marine Life Protection Act. The measure puts large swaths of ocean off limits to anglers.

"So there's a rocky inter-tidal. And around that point, is rocky habitat. And a huge kelp forest," said Russ Vetter, of the Southwest Marine Fisheries Service. His agency manages the nation's fishing stocks.

"Mistakes that were made in the 50s, 60s and 70s are being corrected," said Vetter. He went on to say the marine protected areas are part of a sweeping effort to keep stocks healthy. Creating the marine reserves took more than a decade, but everyone involved saw that something had to be done.

"And even the sport fishing community will tell you, that while they may be selling trips to visitors, and they may be catching some of the more abundant fish. It certainly wasn't like it was back in the 1950s and 60s," said Vetter.

And while fish management is a lot better, it is hardly perfect. Regulators still struggle to make the right decisions, but sometimes that's all washed away by the California current.

"You have these wild swings in temperature and El Nino and La Nina," said Vetter. "So even when everything is done right, you can have a decrease in the population and then a few years later a sudden increase."

But conservationists and researchers hope the Marine Protected Areas create breeding grounds that will feed fishing stocks outside the reserves. Scripps Institution of Oceanography scientist Ed Parnell wants the kelp forest off the shore of LaJolla to look more like the big kelp tank that he's standing in front of in the Birch aquarium.

"There's lots of fish here," said Parnell. "And a lot of them are very large compared to what you see in the wild. And I'm hoping that within the next five years we'll start seeing some of these. These are kelp bass here, sheephead, we'll be seeing more of them and in larger sizes."

Creating an environment where fish can get old and big, helps those fish propagate, according to Parnell, but marine reserves are different than above ground counterparts.

"There's not a lot of support in terms of looking at how effective they are or even maintaining the markers for their edges and things like that," said Parnell.

Parnell is worried there may still be fishing inside reserve areas because it's tough to see the boundaries. The Marine Protected Areas are still a work in progress and the impact on the environment is uncertain.

The impact captain Buzz Brizendine wants to see is on his bottom line. MLPA or not, He's hoping to land 1,000 paying customers this season. That would be enough to call 2012 a good year.

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