Central Coast fishermen are catching underwater cables on their fishing trips in addition to fish, prompting the California Coastal Commission to take a closer look at the cables in its April meeting.

The fishermen claim a fiber-optic cable installed off the coast and operated by San Diego-based Global Photon Systems Inc. (GPSI) interferes with their daily trawling. The 920 kilometer-long cable, which is used for the high-capacity transfer of voice, digital data, and Internet traffic, runs between San Francisco and San Diego, three to twelve miles offshore, with landing sites at San Jose, Los Angeles, and Santa Barbara.

Although the armored, waterproof cable is less than an inch in diameter, local trawling fisherman believe the cables have come up from the bottom and are snagging their nets. In the Coastal Commission’s agreement with GPSI for the project installation, the CCC mandated that the company must keep the cable buried and pay for any possible damages to fishing equipment. However, the fishermen say Global West Network, Inc., a division of GPSI, is not fully complying with the terms the CCC set forth.

Michael David Fox, a local attorney working with the fishermen, said GPSI promised to keep at least 93 percent of the cable buried one meter below the ocean floor.

“The areas where they said they would have the cable buried have been unburied due to natural processes, like tides and currents,” Fox said. “We know this because the fishermen went into certain areas where they had been told the cable was buried and the nets started snagging.”

Fox said the problems began in August of 2001, although the installation of the cable also impeded fishing because fishing vessels could not occupy certain prime fishing areas during construction.

GPSI attempted to create a contract with the fishermen, which said GPSI would only pay for damages from cables if the fishermen did not trawl near the cables.

“It’s a real Catch 22,” Fox said. “The contract was never accepted by the fishermen.”

Local California Coastal Commissioner Pedro Nava said the conflict with Global West could eventually affect consumers by driving up the price of fish.

“Part of the problems that arise is that whenever you have a fiber-optic cable [company] who doesn’t have enough money to pay for the harm that they do, the public ends up being the loser,” Nava said. “The commercial fishing industry stands a good possibility to lose income because of fiber-optic cables. Some aren’t buried deeply enough and some companies have not appropriately handled claims … Global West is the most obvious local offender.”

Nava also said the CCC underestimated how badly the cable would affect fishing.

“The Coastal Commission believed that whatever the impacts were wouldn’t be enough to cause any problems,” he said. “I believe that we didn’t have enough information when we made this decision.”

An Environmental Impact Report released in October 1999, may have also underestimated the impacts of the cable. The report states the project will result in “an insignificant reduction in available fishing area.” Also, a conservative estimate of annual potential lost income – due to the installation and operation of the cable – for fishermen operating between Estero Bay, Santa Barbara, and Manhattan Beach, came to a total of $100,402.07. Fox said these numbers are too low.

“Those numbers show what the fishermen would have lost if the cable had stayed buried,” he said. “Since the cable was above the ground, it caused more problems and even more money was lost.”

The Coastal Commission staff will present a summary of the problem, with input from the affected fishermen and Global West, at the CCC’s regular April meeting. Prior to the meeting, the CCC plans to check up on ten other cable lines – which were approved by the CCC and installed up and down the coast – and their possible effects on the fishing industry.

“When this matter came to our attention in January that Global West has not been meeting the [provisions of the agreement], we requested a status report as to how all the cable operators have been doing,” Nava said. “Enforcement action could begin soon. [There are] substantial fines for failing to meet [the standards]. Theoretically, we’re talking thousands of dollars a day. This is serious business … In a way, these guys are analogous to Enron in that the principals of the company took up millions of dollars while the investors [did not].”

Fox said he agreed with Nava and thinks the problem does not have to end with a stalemate between the fisherman and Global West.

“They’ll look at the application more closely,” he said. “We didn’t realize these problems might arise before. But we can reach a solution. … Right now there are a couple of options. [Global West] could rebury the cable and keep reburying it every month or so like they promised. The alternative is to pick up the cable and move it around,” he said. “They just can’t make fishermen chose between risking their equipment and avoiding prime fishing areas.”

Global Photon Systems, Inc. could not be reached for comment.