Beachcombing: A new generation of spearfishermen hunts conservatively (photos)

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This story is part of our summer series "Beachcombing," in which KPCC reporters will explore the ecology, economy and culture of Southern California's beaches and coast. Let us know what you think in the comments below or on KPCC's Facebook page.

Divers of a certain age will tell you that "Sea Hunt," the television show filmed off of Palos Verdes, whetted their appetite for the ocean. That includes spearfishermen like Skip Hellen.

As a 14-year-old Inglewood boy, Hellen used to hang out at a Bellflower dive shop in the early 1960s, flipping through the Pacific Underwater News. A chance encounter at that shop brought him face-to-face with one of his heroes, straight from the pages of his favorite magazine. Al Schneppershoff became his mentor, and showed him how to spear a big target fish.

"It was a 390 pound black sea bass," Hellen remembers, noting that black sea bass are protected now. "I just could not believe I was sitting on the deck looking a fish that weighed three times more than I did."

Nearly five decades (and a few career changes) later, he’s an unofficial historian for the sport of spearfishing.

RELATEDTo grow a new kelp forest, coastal partners remove urchins along Palos Verdes Peninsula [video]

"It was pretty primitive at the beginning, of course — most sports are," Hellen says.

Spearfishing is millennia old. Two developments boosted its popularity dramatically in the early 20th century. One was the popularization of goggles, particularly along the Mediterranean Sea. Another was World War II. Italy's Uomini Rana, and frogmen in Southern California, brought weaponry and tactics into the ocean, and soon enough, to underwater hunting.

"Before that, spearfishing, there wasn’t any spear guns.  They just used a stick with a fork on the end and they would try to stab things on the bottom," he says with a laugh. Hellen's fascination with undersea diving and spearfishing's unprecedented popularity converged at the perfect time. 

"Today we use scientific stuff like satellite imagery and water temperature variations," he says. "And tides and currents and how that affects fish behavior, and we do weather analysis."

Now Skip Hellen is the big dog: a mentor to guys like Joe Farlo, a Manhattan Beach father of four, who came west from New York to practice medicine. 

The tenacity of the apprentice

The wilderness Joe Farlo knew back home was on land. The Pacific Ocean has offered him new opportunities. 

"I realized that I don’t have to travel six hours. I could come down here and be in a wilderness that is far superior to any land wilderness, in my opinion," Farlo says. "With no people."

Farlo started as a SCUBA diver; the weights, and the rolling sea, gave him back troubles. He found the Los Angeles Fathomiers, his club of spearos, on the Internet a dozen years ago. 

Now he hunts underwater in a wetsuit streaked with brownish green to mimic the kelp forest. On his feet are high-tech carbon fiber blades, fancy Italian fins that outclass the "duck fins" guys like Hellen once used. 

"You don’t want to do anything to reduce your chances of opportunity out here," says Farlo. 

Changes to his hunting grounds don't escape his notice, like how kelp forests swell and ebb offshore.

"This kelp bed has produced some nice white sea bass this year," he says, "whereas it never did in the past few years." Its canopy, he says, was unusually thick. He tracks the health of the ecosystem to hunt better. "Unfortunately for me, my good spots didn’t produce as many last year," he says. 

Farlo slips into the water, while Hellen shouts encouragement. "All right, get a good one," Skip says. 

"You want to be with the sea," Hellen explains, with an appreciative eye toward Farlo's technique. "You don’t want to disturb the environment. You want to be with it. And generally the guys who do that are the guys who get better fish."

Underwater, Farlo nestles his wooden spear gun along his body; he doesn't want it to throw more shadow than he already does. With no tanks, he holds his breath for as long as a minute and a half and clings to kelp, to get as close as possible to his target fish.  

Hellen applauds Farlo's tenacity. At the same time, he says, some of the strategies haven't changed since he was a kid still seeking advice. 

"You get in the water. You swim around. You go to the furthest offshore habitat — normally either kelp or rock formation — and you look at the fish there," he says, repeating advice from Al Schneppershoff. "They’ll normally be pointing into the current. Then you turn into the current like they do and keep swimming till you run out of fish. So you’re basically offshore, up current."

Simple as that. 

Conservation and hunting

Good spearfishermen are competitive: Skip held the record for spearing the biggest white sea bass, more than 80 pounds. He says Farlo's coming along; Joe's looking for his first 60-pounder. 

But they’re also conservationists.

Spearfishermen had an active voice in the state's process for creating marine protected areas. Some, like Farlo, are concerned with stormwater runoff, which they see as a poison that falls into coastal waters. And, perhaps most intriguingly, they want to see sustainable populations of fish they hunt.

The two men, members of the board of directors for the International Underwater Spearfishing Association, voted to stop awarding records to divers who hunt sheepshead, a large black and pink fish. 

Some spearos objected. They point out that California Sheepshead aren't endangered. But the fish are predators to urchins and can keep them in check, which helps kelp forests. The largest ones are rare, Farlo says. 

"It’s just making the right ethical decision. We’re making a statement by making them ineligible. It’ll make more spearfishermen conscious of the fact that they’re very, very important animals."

Farlo says he spends about 10 days on the water in Palos Verdes for every white sea bass he spears. On this gray day, slightly out of season for sea bass, he takes nothing home. What he always finds hunting is a state of mind. A flow state.  

"Diving — the whole process of holding your breath and becoming a marine mammal — that’s pretty much how I see most of the animals in the planet living in that kind of connected flow state," he says.

For Farlo, neither chase — for the feeling, or for the next big fish — is likely to end any time soon. Two of his four sons have joined him in the hunt. He wants to pass on what he knows about spearfishing with them. 

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