On the eve of its tenth anniversary, the California Seafood Council (CSC) is closing its doors.

An order issued March 13, 2001 by the California Department of Food and Agriculture (cdfa), the Council’s administrator under the California Seafood Marketing, Research and Development Act, terminated the Council as of March 31, 2001, curtailing mandatory assessments on participating members.

The action follows provisions of CSC law calling for a public hearing every five years, inviting industry testimony on the desire to continue the mandated program, and mandating review referenda if a substantial question exists.

The public hearing took place in Sacramento, Calif., on Jan. 25. At the hearing fishermen present testified in favor of continuing the Council’s public education programs.

Travis Evans, a veteran fisherman with 58 years on the ocean and a member of the CSC Board of Directors, read a letter from Port San Luis Commercial Fishermen’s Association supporting continuation: “A wealth of groundwork has been laid. Much energy and financial resources have gone into the Council’s purpose, and we are beginning to see positive results. Let’s not let all that effort slip through the scuppers.” Evans’ comments mirrored those of other fishermen who testified.

Fish receivers, however, while commending the Council’s efforts, testified on the need to terminate the program due to financial hardship. “There’s no question the Council has done great things and has … put education in the classroom. They’ve done it on a shoestring budget,” said Vanessa DeLuca of State Fish Company, California’s largest processor and the CSC’s first chair.

“But these programs come at a cost,” she continued, “and right now we can’t split a nickel. The problems that face us right now are ones of access, and they’re not particularly based on science. With limited funds, this fishing sector believes that our money will be more effective in politics, rather than in education.”

In light of testimony at the hearing, CDFA called for a vote of all members. Separate referenda for fishermen and processors concluded on March 7 and the Department tallied the votes on March 13.

Twenty-three percent of eligible fishermen cast ballots and of those voting, 55 percent voted in favor of continuation, representing 51 percent of the volume voted. The number fell short of the 65 percent by number or volume required to pass. About 34 percent of receivers cast ballots, and while 33.7 percent voted to continue, they represented less than one percent of the volume. Thus neither group met the percentages required for continuation.

“Of course it’s disheartening to see the Council end this way,” said Diane Pleschner, CSC manager. “The vote, as well as the relatively low percentage of voters responding, are signposts of the troubled state of our local fishing industry. Public education has become a luxury our largest contributors feel they can no longer afford.”

She added, “I understand the sentiments of both fishermen and processors. They’re scrambling to stay afloat in a rising sea. Unfortunately, without the CSC there will be no ‘voice of reason’ outside embattled industry trade groups to speak the truth about California’s fishing industry.”

The industry is beseiged on multiple fronts: with sensational accusations of over-fishing rife in the media, increasing harvest restrictions and the recent harvest refugia movement, which threatens to close a substantial portion of traditional fishing grounds, the crisis over maintaining access to local seafood resources has reached epic proportions.

“Ultimately, consumers have as much to lose as fishermen, processors and our coastal communities,” Pleschner declared. “If this ultra-protectionist trend continues, we’ll all lose access to fresh California seafood. Seafood resources are, after all, renewable. We need to maintain our traditional fishing infrastructure and protect the hard-working folks who bring fresh local seafood to our table.”

Although officially closing its doors on March 31, the CSC will continue working this year to complete outstanding projects, including transferring its acclaimed school education program, “California’s Golden Seas,” onto interactive CD-Rom, bringing these teaching aids, which include videos, riddle book, and 185-page teachers’ guide, into the 21st Century.

Agriculture in the Classroom, a non-profit educational group with 15,000 ambassador teachers throughout the state, has agreed to distribute the CDs in California schools.

The Council’s Executive Committee has contracted with Pleschner to oversee the wind-down. Among educational projects to be completed are a comprehensive socio-economic report on California’s “wetfish” industry, including squid, mackerel and sardines; scientific white papers on California’s nearshore fishery and the biology of Pacific leatherback turtles; and independent stock assessments for two important groundfish stocks.

The Executive Committee also voted to maintain the Council’s award-winning website: www.ca-seafood.org, as well as “California Seafood World Trade Leads,” a special California seafood marketing section included in the Central Coast World Trade Center website: www.wtcpost.com.

The non-profit California Seafood Council was established in 1991 and provides information about California seafood and California’s fishing industry for the social and economic benefit of Californians. The CSC has represented more than 3,000 fishermen and 200 primary receivers who pay assessments to support Council activities. Administered by California’s Department of Food and Agriculture, the CSC serves as an advisory board to the Secretary of Food and Agriculture.