EAST MEETS WEST
For the past seven years, a quiet fishing cooperative has been working behind the scenes and building a series of aquaculture facilities with plans to shuffle Atlantic fish species west and Pacific fish east.
Many local anglers are calling the group behind the fish shuffle a ruse used by commercial anglers looking to build new possible revenue streams. Known as NORM or the National Organization for Resource Management, this organization has several fish hatcheries and aquaculture plants across the Gulf coast, Atlantic seaboard and Southern California.
In California they've been growing white sea bass for several years and feel they've finally created a strain that will thrive from northern Florida to the Mid-Atlantic region. But it's the East Coast fish that are more in demand.
“Let's be honest, the West Coast fisheries could use some more variety,” said program director Ronald P. Newman. “Cobia are a valuable food fish as well as a targeted game fish. West Coast anglers will generate tons of economic output as they target these fish. Redfish will also be a good fit for the bays and estuaries in Southern California. This species is hardy and fuels a major sport fishery in the Southeast. Why can't we accomplish that on the West Coast?”
NORM's mission statement traces fish introduction back to the 1800s when the first striped bass were transported by train to the West Coast from the Chesapeake Bay region. Stripers at one point sustained a Pacific Coast commercial fishery of more than 1 million pounds annually in California alone. With those sorts of numbers, many believe this program will become a means to support commercial fishing efforts rather than a driver for recreational fishing.
“White sea bass in Florida, are you serious?” said David Frazier, president of the Florida Fishermen's Association. “Why waste all this money to develop a new fishery when we have several fisheries right here that need our help?”
Frazier went on to ask about the ecological implications of such a move. How will forage fish populations fare? Will the environment be impacted? Is this a move to thwart the Marine Life Protection Act?
“All I know is we've got the green light from the necessary state and federal agencies and have fish ready for transport,” Newman said. “There are 35,000 juvenile cobia in a pen off the coast of Texas that will be headed to California come May 1. We've got 62,420 white sea bass fingerlings that are near ready and 100,000-plus redfish hatchlings in Georgia that will be stocked in Mission Bay next year.”
Recreational anglers have been divided as some find NORM too risky, while others think it might actually work.
“Our fishing could use a boost,” said West Coast angler Sheri Baster. “I hardly went fishing at all last year. Maybe this will be a good thing.”
Others disagree. “If I see one cobia come into my club, I'm going to file a lawsuit against these whack-jobs,” said Barrett Duggin, president of the Dana Point High Hook Club.