OFF THE CALIFORNIA COAST -- It's a cool and misty Tuesday morning about 2 miles offshore from the Palos Verdes Peninsula when the 75-foot charter boat Toronado abruptly slows to an idle.
"Fishermen, drop your lines," Capt. Ray Lagmay says from his station at the wheel. It's time for 14 men and one woman who each paid $45 for the half-day deep sea excursion to try their luck. A cash prize of $100 awaits the angler who snags the biggest fish of the day.
But there's a catch. This is the maiden voyage of "Toss Back Tuesdays," an experimental venture out of Pierpoint Landing in Long Beach aimed at changing the business model for such saltwater outings in order to help sustain sport fishing and aid the recovery of fish stocks.
An exclusive catch-and-release policy meant these anglers would take home photographs of their fish, not filets.
The effort, a gamble to make money on what is otherwise the slowest day of the week for charter fishing boats, was organized by Tom Raftican, president of a conservation group called The Sportfishing Conservancy and Don Ashley, owner of the Pierpoint Landing marina.
"We are pitching a new message: catch-and-release," Raftican said as the anglers cast their baited hooks into the blue water. "We want to demonstrate that this concept can be successful. We hope it becomes routine at boat landings up and down the coast."
Catch and release policies have been used for decades by freshwater trout and bass fishing enthusiasts as a method of fisheries management. But they have not gained traction offshore, in part because some ocean fish, when brought to the surface, suffer internal injury.
Discarded rockfish, for example, are unable to swim back down deep enough to force recompression of the gases within their bodies. Floating helplessly on the surface, the fish succumb to thermal shock or become easy pickings for birds, seals and for other fish.
Between 1993 and 2002, an estimated 2 million rockfish were discarded in Southern California waters, according to the Pacific States Marine Commission.
To boost survival rates for fish caught at depths of greater than 100 feet, the Toronado was equipped with a simple recompression device -- an upturned plastic milk crate dangling over the side from a rope and attached to a television camera so that fishermen could watch their catch being lowered to the bottom and set free, unharmed.
"Toss back Tuesdays" comes as landmark fishing restrictions are being proposed for Southern California, which would create a patchwork of havens for marine life designed to replenish the seas while leaving fewer waters open for anglers.
Scientists say increasing numbers of anglers with boats loaded with high-tech gear -- fish-finding sonar and GPS devices that enhance their ability to locate fish congregating around rocks and reefs -- are partly to blame for severe declines in ocean fish populations.
Retired school bus driver Lal Parsonage, 67, has been fishing off the coast of Southern California for half a century, and he remembers a time when 15-pound bonito and 40-pound yellowtail were abundant.
"The size of the fish has dropped considerably," he said. "I came out today to show my support -- and have a little fun. Anything that helps the fishery is a good thing. I still want to catch fish when I am 90 years old."
Parsonage was the first to land a fish on Tuesday; a 1 1/2-pound sculpin he immediately plopped back in the water.
Restaurant cook James Markham, 28, of Van Nuys, also caught a rockfish. "A lot of guys I know catch fish and just let them die," Markham said. "Not me. In the long term, catch-and-release is better for the sport. A picture of a sport fish can be a trophy of a lifetime."
The overall catch was sparse for this first outing: four sculpin, 10 brown rock fish and a Pacific mackerel.
Craig Schuman, a marine consultant to the California Fish and Game Commission, didn't catch anything. Nonetheless, he said he planned to provide the commission with a glowing report of the new venture.
"It's encouraging to see a boat full of recreational anglers dedicated to sustainable fisheries -- they are practicing what they are preaching," he said. "It's great to see that trend."
As the vessel headed back to Long Beach, Raftican handed Parsonage the $100 prize.
"It's pretty sad when you win a fishing contest with 1 1/2-pounder," Parsonage said with a laugh. "But the fish is happy. He got to live another day."