Conservation-minded Cambria residents become contemptuous when our immaculate shoreline ecology is transformed into a sickening cesspool of gory fish carcasses.
The unsightly fish debris that on occasion litters the Leffingwell Landing beach is carelessly deposited by inconsiderate fishermen, including but not limited to dozens of kayak anglers from the annual “Central Coast Slam Down” tournament.
This reckless, thoughtless behavior creates unsafe conditions to beachgoers and to wildlife — not to mention the hideous optics of an otherwise welcoming beach now trashed with fish waste.
For Cambria wildlife activists Susan and Mark Garman, who have worked toward eliminating this carcass carnage over the past few years, it’s been a daunting challenge, in part because State Parks has previously taken the position that fish entrails and bony skeletons scattered on the beach do not technically qualify as “litter.”
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Hence, the messes created by the Slam Down tourney have, until very recently, been legal, and no fines have been levied since there’s technically been no “litter.”
Add to that conundrum the mindset of Slam Down promoter, Ryan Howell, who refers to local activist’ efforts to keep beaches clean of fish garbage as “over-the-top liberal stuff.”
In an April 7 post on the event’s website, Howell refers to Cambria citizens as “yahoos” — and offers this advice to his kayak anglers: “Try not to leave (fish entrails) in plain sight for these yahoos. Maybe give it the old toss into the sea to speed up the process … so the beach does not look ‘trashed’ …”
Anyone who has spent six seconds observing the dynamics of the Pacific Ocean knows waves roll in (not out) and they transport existing debris to the shore with each surge.
Slam Downs have been held at Leffingwell, along with other Central Coast venues, in 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2016. But according to State Park records, Howell’s group has avoided the required State Park permits for all but the 2014 event.
Supervising State Parks Peace Officer Dale Kinney emailed the Garmans on April 27, pledging to research the permitting process that let the Slam Down slip through the cracks four out of five years.
Howell’s response to my email question regarding the scheduled Slam Down 6 for Sept. 16: “We will not have a venue in Cambria at all this year.”
Before Howell indicated that he would not answer any more questions, he reported that proceeds from the Slam Down 6 would benefit the Central Coast Autism Spectrum Center.
Meantime, as volunteers, the Garmans have been in a position to closely observe ocean and beach-related activities due to their involvement with the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary (as beach monitors), the Otter Project (Marine Protected Areas), Pacific Wildlife Care, the Marine Mammal Center in Morro Bay, and the Oiled Wildlife Care Network, among other conservation organizations.
They first became aware of the fish waste problem at Leffingwell in June, 2014. “The beach was littered with fish carcasses,” the Garmans wrote in an email interview. “The source was apparently the anglers butchering their catch and tossing the bones, carcasses and entrails onto our little beach.”
The species caught by anglers (including weekend kayak fishermen that are not involved in the Slam Down) from the Leffingwell ramp area include deepwater species like Rockfish, Cabezon and Lingcod.
“The entrails disappear fairly quickly but the boney carcasses will not,” the Garmans wrote. Fish bones often become “partially buried in sand or hidden in kelp.” Hence, fish waste quickly becomes “a hazard to barefoot beachgoers and to wildlife,” including brown pelicans.
In the wild, pelicans eat small fish with small soft bones, but pelicans cannot digest large fish bones; the bones can become lodged in the birds’ stomach and poke holes, causing serious injury and even death.
The Garmans’ activism has extended to the Port San Luis area, where, with a coalition of conservation organizations, they have interacted with the Port San Luis Harbor Commissioners “to modify their outdated fish cleaning facilities.” Strong resistance from the commission, they say, results from the fact that commercial fishing interests hold four of the five seats.
Meanwhile, in Cambria, the Garmans worked with the California Department of Fish & Wildlife to create durable steel informational signs that are now posted on the railing at the Leffingwell ramp, and on the pier at San Simeon State Beach.
The Garmans recently received cooperation from State Park Officer Kinney, who promised to work with California Fish & Wildlife to “monitor fishing activity” during the next Slam Down. He added, people witnessing illegal fish cleaning in progress should call the Sheriff Department’s non-emergency number (805-781-4550) and ask to be transferred to “State Parks Dispatch.”
Assuming that State Parks officially adds fish waste to its definition of “litter,” anglers caught discarding fish carcasses on the beach or in the water could face a minimum fine of $250 (up to $1,000 for a first offense), according to the California law.
On April 11, an angler (with the handle, “Vermillion”) posted on the Slam Down website immediately following Howell’s rant that Cambrians are “yahoos.” Vermillion’s post asserted that “dozens, if not over 100, retired people in Cambria have absolutely nothing to do.”
Vermillion goes on in his post to write, “If you read The Cambrian on a weekly basis, which I don’t advise, you would see this kind of stuff regularly. It’s hilarious.”
I can only assume Vermillion is as upset at the Garmans’ battle against beach squalor as Cambria’s conservation-minded citizens are at the careless, callous trashing of our beaches.
Freelance journalist and Cambria resident John FitzRandolph’s column appears biweekly and is special to The Cambrian. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.