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Posted by on October 31, 2004 at 21:05:01:

Governor plans statewide system of marine protected areas
Preserves would be closed to fishing like Channel Islands'

By John Krist
October 30, 2004

State agencies churn out documents by the truckload each year, most of them released quietly and destined for obscurity. But there was nothing quiet or obscure about the Oct. 18 unveiling of a report on California's ocean policies.

The news conference occurred not in a stuffy Sacramento conference room but outdoors on a bluff overlooking the crashing surf and scenic coastline of Monterey Bay. It also featured a star-studded cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger, the action-movie hero also known as California's governor, and Clint Eastwood, film legend, former Carmel mayor and state parks and recreation commissioner.

"California's coastline is a symbol of our grand environmental heritage," Schwarzenegger said, gripping a copy of the 38-page report, as cameras rolled and waves slapped the craggy rocks behind him. "We continue that heritage today with a plan to sustain our ocean and coastline for today, tomorrow and forever."

A key element of the governor's plan is a statewide system of marine protected areas like those established last year around several of the Channel Islands. Closed to most commercial and recreational fishing, the underwater preserves were the subject of fierce political and legal battles in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties. Similar battles may well erupt elsewhere as fisheries managers try to expand the network up and down the California coast.

"This issue isn't controversial," said Brian Baird, assistant secretary for ocean and coastal policy in the California Resources Agency. "It's thermonuclear."

A wave of attention

Baird wasn't on stage with the Hollywood superstars in Carmel, but his fingerprints are all over the document the governor can be seen waving in the photos and video footage shot that day. A bookish, bespectacled man who cheerfully describes himself as a "policy wonk," Baird has been a behind-the-scenes adviser on ocean issues for three California governors, and his work forms the core of Schwarzenegger's plan.

Baird provided an overview of the governor's strategy Wednesday in Long Beach, where several hundred of the state's leading experts on ocean issues were attending a conference on coastal watershed management.

"Gov. Schwarzenegger has not been waiting on the sidelines. In the style that we're all becoming accustomed to, he's calling for action," Baird said, uttering the final word in a deep voice and a mock Austrian accent.

Titled "Protecting Our Ocean: California's Action Strategy," it's a document with multiple personalities. It provides an overview of state laws and programs affecting California's marine and coastal environments. It calls on the federal government to follow California's lead by adopting similar statutes and policies, and it sketches out a broad array of initiatives the governor intends to launch.

The Oct. 18 release of "California's Action Strategy" caps a sequence of recent events that even veteran policy analysts regard as remarkable for the way it has focused attention on ocean management issues.

On Sept. 20, the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy submitted a report to Congress and President Bush calling for an overhaul of federal management practices. The product of three years of review, analysis and public hearings, the report concluded that the nation's ocean waters are in deep trouble.

"Our failure to properly manage the human activities that affect the nation's oceans, coasts, and Great Lakes is compromising their ecological integrity, diminishing our ability to fully realize their potential, costing us jobs and revenue, threatening human health, and putting our future at risk," the report says.

Titled "An Ocean Blueprint for the 21st Century," the report recommended 212 steps, ranging from new fishery management techniques to improved pollution control strategies and a significant increase in federal spending on marine research. The goals include halting the decline in fish populations, cleaning up coastal waters and providing a sound scientific basis for management decisions. Under the Oceans Act of 2000, which established the commission, the president was given 90 days to respond to the report.

In May 2003, the private Pew Commission on the Oceans released a similarly wide-ranging report on the state of the nation's coastal and marine resources, titled "America's Living Oceans: Charting a Course for Sea Change." Like the U.S. commission's report, the Pew report found the nation's ocean environment threatened by collapsing fisheries, water pollution, invasive species and a host of other ills, jeopardizing thousands of jobs and billions of dollars' worth of investment. Like the U.S. commission, the Pew Commission recommended fundamental changes in fishery management techniques, more stringent pollution controls and increased federal commitment to research.

"The evidence that our oceans face a greater array of problems than ever before in our nation's history surrounds us," the Pew report said. "Marine life and vital coastal habitats are straining under the increasing pressure of our use. We have reached a crossroads where the cumulative effect of what we take from, and put into, the ocean substantially reduces the ability of marine ecosystems to produce the economic and ecological goods and services that we desire and need. What we once considered inexhaustible and resilient is, in fact, finite and fragile."

At the state level, there has been a similar flurry of attention. This year, the governor has signed into law eight bills addressing coastal and marine management, including legislation restricting bottom trawling, prohibiting discharge of gray water from cruise ships, and establishing the California Ocean Protection Council, a Cabinet-level body to coordinate marine management and conservation programs. The governor's budget authorized $10 million to finance those programs.

"There is a groundswell of interest and attention," said Gary Davis, the National Park Service's visiting chief scientist for ocean programs, and an architect of the proposal to establish marine protected areas at the Channel Islands. "It's a good time for us to move forward. I'm pleased that California is taking the lead."

The nation may look to California for guidance, but as California moves forward, it will be looking at the Ventura-Santa Barbara region as an example of what -- and perhaps what not -- to do.


The theory behind establishment of the Channel Islands marine protected areas, or MPAs, was to create refuges where depleted species of fish could survive and reproduce without being targeted by commercial and sport fishers. Allowed to mature and produce offspring, the protected fish could help repopulate areas outside the reserves, providing more fish for harvest at a sustainable rate.

The proposal was initiated in 1997 by a small group calling itself the Marine Resource Restoration Committee for the Channel Islands, whose members included longtime local sport-fishing enthusiasts Jim Donlon and Evans Hughes, as well as Davis, then the senior scientist at Channel Islands National Park. Their concern was motivated by data showing a steady decrease in the abundance and diversity of the local commercial catch, paralleling a decline in the abundance and diversity of species recorded during a long-term habitat monitoring project being carried out near the islands by the National Park Service.

The committee requested in 1998 that the state Fish and Game Commission develop the network of reserves in the waters of Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary, which encompasses the five islands of the national park and extends six nautical miles from their shores. After numerous public hearings, which often featured ugly shouting matches, demonstrations, and contentious negotiations among scientists, environmental activists and fishing industry representatives, California's Fish and Game Commission voted in October 2002 to establish no-take zones. The zones encompass about 20 percent of the waters within three miles of Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, San Miguel and Santa Barbara islands.

The decision was denounced by fishing industry representatives, who argued that the premise of marine reserves was scientifically unsupported. Scientists, however, cited studies of similar reserves around the world, which indicated they can work to repopulate certain depleted species.

A coalition of commercial and recreational fishing groups sought a temporary restraining order to prevent the regulations from taking effect, arguing that marine reserves would hurt them financially and that the Fish and Game Commission had violated state and federal law during the process. Ventura County Superior Court Judge Steven Hintz rejected their request in March 2003, and the California Department of Fish and Game began enforcing the new rules on April 9 of that year.

So far, the jury is out on the overall effect of the closures.

"It's too soon to see biological changes," said John Ugoretz, a marine biologist in the Santa Barbara office of the Department of Fish and Game. The species that had suffered the most from fishing and stand to benefit the most from protection are rockfish, which live a long time, mature late and reproduce slowly. Although scientific monitoring is under way to gauge the ecological effect of the closures, the first report is not due until 2008.

Charter operators reported an immediate drop in business when the closure took effect. Nearly 18 months later, there does not appear to have been a measurable economic impact on the sport and commercial fishing industries, Ugoretz said. The department has been monitoring landings but has not noticed a decrease that can be attributed to the regulations, he said.

"If closing 20 percent of the state waters at the Channel Islands was to have an effect, we'd see it," he said.

False start

Taking the MPA strategy statewide will likely expose regulators to a buzz saw of criticism and opposition like the tumult that attended creation of the Channel Islands reserves. There already have been hints of that.

The idea of a statewide system of preserves did not originate with the Schwarzenegger administration. In 1999, two years after the Channel Islands campaign began, the Legislature passed the Marine Life Protection Act, which directed the Department of Fish and Game to develop a plan for a network of no-take zones along the state's entire coastline by Jan. 1, 2003.

But when the department issued a set of preliminary maps showing potential closure areas, and began holding public workshops on the plan, it was subjected to a withering barrage of criticism from commercial and sport-fishing interests.

"The wacko environmentalists, liberals and lefties that want to ban sportfishing in our Channel Islands, at Catalina, in Santa Monica Bay, off the Palos Verdes Peninsula, the area in front of Camp Pendleton, and La Jolla are getting their way by the enactment of the Marine Life Protection Act," is how sport fisherman Ace Carter characterized the program in an e-mail alert to fellow fishing enthusiasts, which was subsequently posted online by the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations. "If selling your fishing tackle, your fishing boat and tow vehicle and never going deep sea fishing on a party boat is not in your immediate future, maybe you should think about getting real pissed off and politically militant."

Stung by criticism and hampered by inadequate funding, the department yanked the maps and started over. Early this year, shortly after he took office, Gov. Schwarzenegger announced the program was being suspended because of the state's budget crisis.

The Department of Fish and Game dryly notes on its Web site that "the Marine Life Protection Act has not been implemented as quickly as intended."

With the release of "California's Action Strategy," the governor announced a revival of the act's provisions for a statewide network of marine reserves. This time, the plan includes two new components intended to address the weaknesses that scuttled the first attempt: a new source of funding, and a new process by which to involve the public -- and potential critics -- in the design of the reserve system.

A new start

Schwarzenegger announced appointment of a task force to oversee the process. The task force also will develop the plan for protected areas, which will then be handed over to the Fish and Game Commission for approval and the Department of Fish and Game for implementation.

Rather than trying to expand the system statewide all at once, the governor's plan calls for a pilot project first on the Central Coast, likely near Monterey Bay. The new timeline envisions a draft of the overall strategy by May 2005, a plan for the pilot project by March 2006, and completion of the statewide reserve network by 2011.

The membership of the task force, which met for the first time last weekend in Sacramento, seems calculated to blunt criticism that the plan is being driven by "wacko environ- mentalists." Members include Douglas Wheeler, state resources secretary under Gov. Pete Wilson; Catherine Reheis-Boyd, chief operating officer for the Western States Petroleum Association; William W. Anderson, president of Westrec Marina Management; and former San Diego Mayor Susan Golding. A science panel will be appointed to offer advice and information.

This time around, the state won't be footing the entire bill. The administration approved $500,000 to start the process, and that has been supplemented by $750,000 from the Resources Legacy Fund Foundation, a nonprofit organization that channels money to conservation programs from such donors as the Packard Foundation.

Ugoretz and Davis, veterans of the skirmishes that accompanied creation of the Channel Islands reserves, both said involving a broader cross-section of the public in the process could help it run more smoothly.

The process, as well as the overall coastal action plan, also has won measured applause from environmental groups.

"These are very promising developments," said Rod Fujita, a marine biologist for Environmental Defense. "The proof will be in the follow up. ... There's a level of commitment to seeing this through that wasn't there before."

It has also won cautious support from some of the most vocal critics of the earlier reserve proposals. "I do believe we've got a place at the table," said Tom Raftican, president of United Anglers of Southern California, a sport-fishing organization.

Raftican noted that the bill establishing the California Ocean Protection Council states clearly that it shall be the policy of California to allow "recreational use" -- presumably including sport-fishing -- even in marine protected areas, as long as it doesn't cause ecological harm.

"We believe that there will be a level playing field," Raftican said.

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