Vote on no-fishing zones Tuesday

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Posted by on August 15, 2006 at 10:53:18:

California plan creates vast network of no-fishing zones off coast

SAN JOSE – After six years of political debate and scientific study, California is poised Tuesday to become the first state in the nation to create a broad network of "no fishing" zones off its coast with the hopes of restoring ocean species from rockfish to sea otters to Dungeness crab.

The idea is simple, and based on one of the leading new trends in marine biology.

Provide fish a rest from hooks and nets, scientists say, in certain key spots known as "marine protected areas" and they will grow bigger and more numerous. The hope is that they’ll eventually restock kelp forests, rocky underwater canyons and the rest of the ocean along the state’s coastline.

The California Fish and Game Commission is scheduled to vote on the plan Tuesday in Monterey, Calif. It would affect up to 13 percent of the Central Coast’s waters out to three miles, from Half Moon Bay to Santa Barbara.

"This is a historic moment in how we manage our oceans," said Warner Chabot, vice president of the Ocean Conservancy, an environmental group in San Francisco.

"It’s comparable to decisions by Teddy Roosevelt to create national forests and wilderness areas 100 years ago."

As with many major rulings affecting the West’s natural resources, however, the plan is not without controversy.

The Fish and Game Commission, a five-member body whose majority was appointed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, was told to draw up the plan under a law signed by former Gov. Gray Davis in 1999. The commission will choose from four options. Each is spelled out in maps and charts in exhaustive detail. The plans were drafted during dozens of public meetings by fishermen, environmentalists, marine biologists and state officials following long-running squabbles and debates.

Each would require different-sized reserves and rules.

The one supported by fishermen, for example, would put 5 percent of Central Coast waters off limits to all commercial and recreational fishing. The environmentalists’ plan goes furthest. It would set 13 percent off limits. In the middle, a plan drawn up by a "blue ribbon task force" of Schwarzenegger appointees would place 10 percent off limits. And the recommendation from the state Department of Fish and Game staff calls for 8 percent off limits.

"We had to see it if was feasible from an enforcement standpoint, or if it provided recreational opportunities like spear fishing and scuba diving," said Bill Romanelli, a spokesman for state Department of Fish and Game, defending his agency’s decision to embrace the smaller protections. "We want to strike a balance."

Environmental groups call that a sell-out.

"We’re urging the commission at a minimum to endorse the governor’s blue ribbon task force recommendation, otherwise it is a compromise of a compromise without much meaning," said Chabot. He said some scientists think 20 percent of ocean areas must be put off limits to best restore depleted fisheries.

Fishing industry groups, on the other hand, say three of the plans go too far.

"The thing that disturbs me the most is the fact that it is permanent. We’re already regulated like hell," said commercial fisherman Mike Stiller, 65, of Capitola, Calif., who has hauled in salmon and albacore since 1972.

Fishermen fear losing money at a time when competition from fish farms, government shutdowns of salmon seasons because of die-offs in the Klamath River and other struggles are providing enough headaches.

David Crabbe, 48, a squid fisherman from Monterey, said commercial and sport fishermen worked in good faith and came up with a plan that protects many areas while still leaving some good fishing grounds open, such as off rocky points.

For example, off Point Sur in Big Sur, Ano Nuevo in San Mateo County and Piedras Blancas near Hearst Castle, environmentalists want no fishing. But the fishermen’s plan would allow fishing for anchovies, sardines and salmon in those areas.

All of the four plans also would set aside an additional 7 percent to 10 percent of Central Coast waters as "marine conservation areas" or "marine parks` where limited fishing would be allowed, such as only from the beach or only for salmon.

In all, the plan recommended by Fish and Game staff would create 26 marine protected areas covering 208 square miles, an area of about 133,000 acres, roughly the size of Lake Tahoe. Environmentalists favor protecting about 221 square miles, while the fishing industry’s choice would cover about 171 square miles.

Fishing groups say they joined the process because they could see which way the political current were drifting.

Stacks of studies from around the world over the last five years have shown that fish grow larger and more numerous in marine reserves. Scientists from Stanford University, the Monterey Bay Aquarium, the University of California and other top institutions advocate making California a national showcase for reserves.

"The marine protected areas we are proposing will do nothing for gray whales or blue fin tuna," said Steve Palumbi, a professor of marine biology at Stanford. "They will be bus stops on their migration route. But there are a large number of species in coastal habitats that don’t go a long way, like Dungeness crab, sea urchins and rockfish. They’re going to really benefit from this."

With fish, size is important. A 50-year-old rockfish can produce 200 times as many larvae as a smaller 10-year-old rockfish. "Unlike people, as fish get bigger they have more babies," Palumbi said.

Palumbi was a member of a science advisory team that reviewed the plans. All four passed basic scientific rigor. But the fishermen’s package had 54 percent of its marine reserves smaller than the minimum size – three miles long – that the scientists recommended, while the environmentalists’ plan had 36 percent considered too small and the blue ribbon task force had 28 percent.

Other key questions remain. The Department of Fish and Game has only 14 wardens who oversee the nearly 250 miles of coastline from Half Moon Bay to Santa Barbara. And the economic impacts are not entirely known, although one study by a University of California-Davis researcher pegged costs at about $1 million a year to commercial fishing fleets.

Meanwhile, with the November elections nearing, environmentalists say the outcome will be a key test of Schwarzenegger’s commitment to environmental protection. For his part, the governor has not chosen a plan, preferring to let the commission do it without interference, his aides say. And a spokesman for Democratic challenger Phil Angelides said Friday that if the commission chooses the fishermen’s plan or the department’s plan, that would be inadequate.

For some participants, the marathon process already has gone on too long.

"I’m not going to show up Tuesday," said Stiller. "I’ve gone to enough meetings. I’m going fishing."

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