Marine Reserves Generate Plans, Passions…and Perhaps Fish

About a year ago, a few dozen state resources planners and wildlife conservation types set out with a fairly impossible goal: create a plan to save the ocean off of Northern California by building a huge series of protected reserves, while pleasing environmentalists, commercial fishermen, recreational fishermen, divers, bird watchers, kayakers, abalone divers, marine scientists, diesel pump operators, and the myriad other stakeholders with often-conflicting interests in the fate of the shoreline. These networked marine protected areas would, depending on the design, ban fishing and all other extraction entirely, or ban fishing for certain kinds of fish, in somewhere between twenty to thirty percent of the area’s state waters (the ocean between the shoreline and three miles offshore).

There’s ample scientific evidence that marine reserves help fish populations recover, and some evidence that these burgeoning populations then spill over into areas outside the reserve. There’s also ample evidence that California’s fish populations are, historically speaking, over-fished. Talk to someone who’s been diving in the state for a few decades, and they’ll tell you how the kelp forests once looked like aquariums, and about how you could just pick abalone off the rocks. Even fishermen lament the old days when you could fish for salmon just out of the harbor, or limit out on rockfish in a few hours after work.

With one recent study estimating that only four percent of the world’s oceans are completely unaffected by humans, and another (controversial) one estimating that, at current rates of fishing, the world’s fish stocks will vanish in forty years, marine reserves, even in popular fishing spots, seem like an imperative to many marine scientists and environmentalists. “Just from that big high-altitude perspective, I believe there ought to be chunks of the ocean that are set aside that aren’t supposed to be screwed up,” says Chris Harrold, a marine scientist and longtime director of conservation research at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. “It’s really as simple as that.”

After the final North Central California Marine Life Protection Act Initiative Blue Ribbon Task Force meeting in late April, the state is close to setting aside those chunks. It’s a measure of the project’s degree of difficulty that, when the decision-makers polled all the involved organizations about their proposal, they ultimately boiled their questioning down to: “Can you live with this plan?”

Here’s another measure: at the final north central coast Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) meeting, a disgruntled environmentalist showed up intending to make a point with an authentic severed—and badly decomposing—seal head in a bag. (He was asked to leave, but there was no legal action taken against him, Department of Fish & Game spokesman Steve Martarano said, because the man had a permit. For the seal head.)

Saving the ocean, pleasing the constituents: Not easy. But when you can manage some sort of compromise that leaves everyone just mildly irritated, well, that’s when you get, as the Department of Fish & Game did, to trumpet your plan as the “milestone” that it is.

The MLPA orders state agencies to take a long look at California’s existing protected marine areas, then figure out some way to build a statewide, comprehensive, networked group to protect wildlife, improve research conditions, and enhance or at least maintain recreational opportunities.

To make it a little easier, the MLPA staffers split the map of California into study regions. They started last spring on the north central coast, which covers the area from Alder Creek in Mendocino to Pigeon Point in San Mateo. The region’s 45 appointed “stakeholders” then started the nearly year—long process of coming up with plans, commenting on the plans, running the plans by an appointed science advisory team, revising the plans, and coming up with new plans.

If you had stopped by one of these workshops, like the one held in Pacifica in January, you would have seen a motley assortment of ocean-lovers gunning for their own interests: an environmentalist in flowing silk, two fit young surfers from the Surfrider Foundation, an older man concerned about access for kayakers, a gentleman named Rolf who worried that he wouldn’t be able to drive his boat around, a thin, Lincoln-ish representative from California Trout in a maroon sweater vest and six-inch-too-short khakis, and at the head of the table, bellowing like something out of Robert Louis Stevenson, a party boat fishing captain with a name tag that read, “Hello my name is SMITTY,” all of them arguing passionately the finer points of ocean policy.

The most contentious battles were over “no-take” marine reserves; fishermen argued that environmentalists are trying to kick them off the water entirely by taking away all the good spots to fish. With Northern California salmon gone for at least the next several years, the catch in question, for fishermen, is mostly rockfish. And since rockfish are found in areas where there are rocks, and since areas with rocks and fish also tend to be obvious areas to put in marine reserves, recreational fishermen argued that the wrong plan could mean the end of their sport. (To be clear: fishermen aren’t against all marine protected areas, they were just against the particular protected areas proposed in this process by environmental groups. Some of the early plans would have put marine reserves in about ninety percent of the rocky areas, meaning that the only areas left open to fishing wouldn’t have any rockfish in them.) Suggested marine reserves at popular fishing spots like Duxbury Reef off Point Reyes, the area around Montara, and the Farallon Islands had many fishermen saying they’d sell their boats and do their fishing in Alaska or Mexico.

Calling it the “biggest political battle” his group had ever faced, Chris Hall, the president of the 13,000-member Coastside Fishing Club, said that the MLPA had “provided a vehicle for environmental organizations that wish for us not to be on the ocean a way to do it.” Environmental organizations and MLPA organizers disagreed. “This is not about trying to prevent people from fishing,” said Melissa Miller-Henson, the program manager for the MLPA Initiative. “It’s really about trying to maintain a healthy ocean ecosystem so that folks can take their children, their grandchildren, eventually their great-grandchildren out to go fishing because there are still fish out there in the ocean.”

Fishermen argue that California already has extensive marine regulations, and that after over-fishing in the 1980s and ’90s, California fish populations (especially rockfish and other so-called “groundfish”) have recovered to sustainable levels. Groundfish populations in California, after reaching a nadir in the 1990s, are increasing or holding steady. But Harrold argues that even a well-managed fishery still allows a lot of fish to be caught, and that we have really no idea what that means for the ocean ecosystem. “In large part, we’re conducting this big experiment in the ocean,” Harrold said. “Let’s extract hundreds of thousands of tons of fish—and see what happens.”

In late April, after a year of arguments, the north central coast stakeholder group presented three proposals to the Blue Ribbon Task Force, the group charged with taking a year’s worth of advice and picking one “preferred alternative” plan to send to Fish & Game for final approval. The three stakeholder proposals split along party lines: a “fishermen’s” proposal, an “environmentalist’s” proposal, and a slightly environmentalist-leaning compromise proposal that, in its backers’ defense, was “everyone’s second choice.”

The task force forwarded all three plans intact to the Fish & Game Commission and then set to mashing them all up into one giant compromise for its “preferred alternative.” For areas in the northern parts of the study region, they borrowed almost exclusively from the environmentalists’ plan, recommending the proposal’s suggested marine protected areas at Point Arena, Sea Lion Cove, Saunders Reef, Del Mar, Stewarts Point, and Salt Point, including a state marine park at the popular abalone-diving area near Salt Point. Then, as the task force moved south, they swung back toward the fishermen’s plan. They elected not to recommend any protected areas at Duxbury Reef, perhaps the most important area to fishermen, and also used the fishermen’s suggestions for Bodega Head and the Fitzgerald/Montara area. The task force’s “preferred alternative” covered twenty percent of the region’s waters and called for 160 square miles of marine protected areas.

Everyone now gets one more opportunity to make an argument. Again. The Fish & Game Commission started taking public comment on the preferred alternative and other proposals in June and has the power to change any of the plans as it sees fit. A final decision isn’t expected until at least December, and it’s likely the new MLPAs won’t be implemented until well into 2009. Meanwhile, the task force moves on. After a year of tension and argument and debate and passion, and a difficult compromise recommendation, their reward: They get to start all over again in Southern California.

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