JEFFREY KAYE: An already economically threatened West Coast fishing industry is facing some of the toughest regulations in U.S. History. New rules, which took effect July 1, ban both commercial and recreational fishing of dozens of species of rock fish in California ocean waters greater than 120 feet in depth. Government fishing regulators are trying to prevent the extinction of endangered fish populations. The rules cover commercially popular rock fish, such as Boccacoi and Yellow Eye, which are often sold to consumers as Red Snapper. But many struggling fishermen along California's 1100 mile long coastline are angered by the new rules.
FISHERMAN: If you cut slices in the side of the fish, then the meat will penetrate more evenly.
JEFFREY KAYE: Fisherman Bill Maertz fears his way of life and livelihood are threatened by government meddling. He spoke to NewsHour producer Saul Gonzalez.
BILL MAERTZ, Fisherman: The one species they don't figure in a lot of this factor when assessing fisheries is the human species, and I believe that the commercial fisherman is one of the most endangered species on the coast. It's hard for me to accept some of the regulatory actions that come down from people that don't spend the time on the water and see the environment, of someone that's inland 200 miles or 300 miles or even on the East Coast telling me what I should be doing on the West Coast 20 miles to sea.
JEFFREY KAYE: The new rules off the West Coast are part of increased government restrictions meant to rein in over fishing. In all a record 107 species of fish are now considered threatened. Declining fish populations, combined with government restrictions are causing a crisis in America's multi billion dollar a year fishing industry. But regulators and scientists say they have no choice if they are to save threatened species such as rock fish, which were once a staple of the West Coast fishing industry.
MILTON LOVE, Marine Biologist: Every port had fishermen who fish for rock fish, they weren't real expensive, they were sort of the bread and butter thing for a commercial fisherman or a recreational angler. They were just everywhere, they were very ubiquitous.
JEFFREY KAYE: Marine biologist Milton Love is one of the world's top experts on rock fish. For his research, Love regularly descends into pacific waters to conduct an ongoing rock fish census. He's not happy when what he's finding, waters that once teamed with rock fish are now nearly deserted.
MILTON LOVE: For a few species there are so few of them left that when I go down in an hour or two hours on a reef, if we see two of them, we come back up and we go, oh, I saw two big Boccacoi. And that's a sad commentary.
JEFFREY KAYE: Scientists estimate some species of rock fish have declined by as much as 98 percent over the last 30 years. The new West Coast fishing regulations are supposed to save the fish from complete extinction. But while the rules should help the fish, they'll harm already struggling fishermen.
BILL MAAERTZ: What it does is it means I have to put more work into the same result. It's obviously a dangerous fishery in some areas, a lot of risk of injury-- a lot of time and exposure in a rough environment on the ocean and in the weather. And what it means for me is instead of going out for two days, I gotta go out for three to five days.
JEFFREY KAYE: But regulators' past concerns for the plight of fisherman have too often stymied the management says Milton Love.
MILTON LOVE: The managers are, they're loath to really lower quotas, because if there's a suggestion, well, why don't we allow the fishermen to catch half as many next year, the fishermen just trundle up and say we're going to go bankrupt. Our kids are going to live under bridges, and managers are just people, no one wants to drive someone to living under a bridge. So you sort of put it off and you put it off, and this has happened everywhere. And by the time you actually get around to doing something, it's often too late, and that's what's happened with some species of rock fish off the coast here.
JEFFREY KAYE: Many fishermen reject the idea that they are to blame for the plight of rock fish. They argue instead that environmental factors such as warming ocean temperatures brought by El Nino are responsible for the fish's near disappearance in California waters. Many also question the quality of the scientific evidence behind the fishing ban.
BILL MAERTZ: I can fish the same area the same day, each day for ten days straight and not catch a single fish, and on that 11th day I catch a lot of fish. So to be able to say how many fish under the ocean is very difficult. Rock fish are slow growing, the science on that is true. But the numbers out there, the rebounding factor of fish in wild populations, it's strong, it's incredibly strong.
JEFFREY KAYE: But authorities say it will take decades to rebuild decimated rock fish populations. In the meantime, regulators are considering even more drastic restrictions that would extend the fishing ban to waters off the States of Oregon and Washington early next year.