Our study focused on the status of the marine recreational fishery along the northern and central California coast, where surveys of recreational fishing effort and catch were conducted from 1958–61 and from 1981–86. Between the two surveys, annual recreational fishing effort rose from 1.6 million fishing days to 2.7 million fishing days. Nearly all the increase was due to increases in fishing from boats (commercial passenger fishing vessels and private/rental boats). Annual recreational catch rose from 3.9 million fish weighing 2700 metric tons to 6.5 million fish weighing 5400 metric tons. The average number of fish caught per day decreased for fishing from piers (1.9 to 1.6), other shore areas (1.7 to 1.1), and private/rental boats (2.8 to 2.4), and increased from commercial passenger fishing vessels (5.4 to 6.0). The variety of different fish species caught in a typical day of fishing from boats decreased, but variety from shore increased. Direct expenditures in the fishery from 1981–86 were about $160 million per year (1992 dollars).
Rockfish (Sebastes spp.) dominated the catch from boats in both surveys. Between the two surveys, recreational catch of rockfish rose from 1.3 million fish to 3.4 million fish, while average weight per rockfish decreased from 0.82 kg to 0.71 kg. Average weight decreased in 12 of 16 major rockfish species. The 12 species were mainly shallow-water (m) species or species with wide depth ranges. The catch from boats shifted towards a higher proportion of deep-water (>73 m) species. Signs of population stress were found in blue rockfish S. mystinus (decrease in catch), canary rockfish S. pinniger and yellowtail rockfish S. flavidus (decrease in mean length in recreational and trawl catches and high incidence of sexually immature fish in recreational catch), and brown rockfish S. auriculatus (decrease in mean length and high incidence of sexually immature fish in recreational catch). Abrupt declines in lengths of blue rockfish and yellowtail rockfish occurred in central California between 1983 and 1984. Declines reflect mortalities that may in part be attributed to effects of the 1982–83 El Niño event. Mean weight per rockfish decreased in a north-to-south cline from Del Norte/Humboldt (1.13 kg) to San Luis Obispo (0.48 kg) in 1980–86. The major species generally had smaller fish and fewer successful year-classes in central California than northern California.
Catches of lingcod Ophiodon elongatus, a trophy species of importance to both boat and shore fishing, have been in slow oscillating decline since the early 1970s. It is unclear whether the decline is due to overharvest and is a long-term trend that will continue, or if it is due to natural population fluctuations.
Fishes of the surfperch family (Embiotocidae) dominated catch from shore in both surveys. of the fish groups we examined, the surfperch showed the greatest evidence of decline. Between the surveys, the weight of sport catch of surfperches declined by 54% and the weight of commercial catch declined by 26%. Barred surfperch Amphistichus argenteus and redtail surfperch A. rhodoterus (the two most important surfperches by number and weight landed), and also striped seaperch Embiotoca lateralis showed substantial decreases in recreational catch and average weight per fish. Commercial landings of redtail surfperch in the Eureka area declined by 54% from 1953 through 1992, despite a rise in price per pound. Commercial landings of barred surfperch in the Santa Barbara area rose by 118% from 1953 through 1992, perhaps due to a rise in price per pound. White seaperch Phanerodon furcatus stocks may have collapsed prior to the 1958–61 survey. Like rockfish, mean weight per surfperch decreased in a north-to-south cline from Del Norte/Humboldt (0.33 kg) to San Luis Obispo (0.22 kg) in 1980–86.
Populations of lingcod and five of six rockfishes examined for interannual length-frequency trends were found to be subject to wide variation in recruitment from year to year. Strong year-classes often dominated a species' catch for several consecutive years. Strong year-classes were not found to be established in the 1957–58 and 1982–83 El Niño periods.
Ten pelagic fish species (albacore Thunnus alalunga, bigeye tuna T. obesus, bluefin tuna T. thynnus, bullet mackerel Auxis rochei, Pacific mackerel Scomber japonicus, Pacific bonito Sarda chiliensis, skipjack Katsuwonus pelamis, yellowfin tuna T. albacares, dolphinfish Coryphaena hippurus, and California barracuda Sphyraena argentea) showed obvious northward shifts in the sampled recreational catch during the 1982–83 El Niño event. Eighteen other species showed less pronounced changes that may have been related to El Niño.