Mullet gone in Chula Vista

Over-fishing and power boating doomed tidelands' fish

Its 39 acres of parks, 900 boat slips, excursion dock, and restaurants have made Chula Vista’s new J Street marina a bayfront paradise. But Mike Irey and Luigi Sanfilippo say the multimillion-dollar tidelands project has destroyed one of San Diego Bay’s most precious resources: its fish.

"There used to be so many mullet swimming around in here that they'd literally be slapping the side of my boat," Irey recalled last week as he watched construction cranes scoop mud from the southernmost portion of the marina, where 340 new boat slips are being built. Before the dredging began, those muddy tidelands were filled with tall grasses that served as a nursery and feeding grounds for schools of mullet and mudsuckers. The shallow, sun-warmed waters also made J Street a perfect spot for lrey and fellow fisherman Sanfilippo to catch thousands of pounds of the silvery, blunt-nosed mullet. But the manmade marina and a new deep channel that serves as an entry and exit for the pleasure boats has driven out the schools of fish. "The last time I put my net out here was in June, and I didn't get one fish of any type, not even a stingray," says Irey.

What's more disturbing to the fishermen is their inability to find substantial schools of mullet anywhere else inside the bay. Sanfilippo, who has fished for mullet since the mid-'70s under a special state fish and game department permit, says his daily catches have declined from highs of 1800 pounds in the early '80s to 400 pounds or less in 1988- '89. Irey had bountiful catches for the first few years after he was granted a mullet permit in 1985, but his logbooks now show yields of 192, 124, 81, even 26 pounds per day. He says he has equally bad luck at several places that once yielded full nets: the J Street area, Emory Cove, and the waters just south of the Coronado Bridge. Fish and game department statistics appear to confirm the fishermen's observations. From a high of 46,050 pounds in 1980, the total annual mullet catch in San Diego declined to a record low of 14,065 pounds in 1988.

Irey, a 35-year-old South Bay native who has fished in the bay and along the coast for much of his ii;e, believes that the more than 75-acre J Street marina park is just one of several forces that are chasing away the schools of fish in San Diego Bay. Toxic discharges from bayfront industries may be responsible for the ventral-fin tumors and malformed tails that Irey has seen on some. of the mullet he has caught. Power boating has scared off the finned creatures "these guys put their boats in gear and leave their brains at home," Irey says disdainfully - and boat owners sometimes spill fuel in the bay while they're transferring it to their tanks. The paint that's applied to the bottom of boats also has a bad side effect, because it can kill some juvenile fish and prevents crustaceans and other marine food sources from attaching themselves to the hulls. And the drawn-out construction of the I-805/I-5 interchange near 24th Street in National City has also had a negative effect on the bay's ecology. "San Diego has grown up, and the bay has died; that's the long and short of it," Irey summarizes.

Marine resource experts think that comment is a wild overstatement, and they offer more comforting interpretations of mullet data. Biologist Richard Ford, who has studied bay marine life for the past 22 years, says fish populations tend to vary from year to year and sometimes go through "natural cycles" of decline. Though the loss of the shallow mud flats at J Street decreased the habitat available for the mullet, Ford says there are thousands of acres of other mud flats throughout the southern bay. The San Diego State University professor also notes that a comparison of statistics from 1968 through 1989 indicates that there's "pretty much the same composition of fish [species], and the [population] numbers are consistent."

Though Ford suggests that aggressive harvesting by the state-approved mullet fishermen may be partly responsible for the depleted stock, fish and game biologist Phil Swartzell says the 1980- '81 population counts were so high :hat nit's hard to believe" the fishermen could reduce the population. (They sell their catch to local Asian fish markets for about 75 cents a pound.) Swartzell instead suggests that the catches are down because the J Street marina, with its shallow waters, was "a relatively easy place to catch fish" before it was transformed by dredging. (Irey acknowledges that the mullet can swim under the nets he has placed in the man-made channel.) Fish and game's Swartzell also says he's seen groups of mullet swimming around the new Sunroad Marina near Lindbergh Field, where he docks his houseboat.

Still. the experts acknowledge that the observations of commercial fishermen are a reliable window onto conditions in the bay. And biologist Ford warns that the negative effects of development should be carefully considered before the construction projects are approved. "Dredging often destroys a natural habitat that's important for most fish," he says. "One marina doesn't have much effect, but you obviously don't want to build a lot of them."

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