California Establishes Network of Marine Reserves

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Posted by on August 15, 2006 at 23:47:31:

Monterey, Calif. The California Fish and Game Commission on Tuesday banned or severely restricted fishing across nearly 20 percent of the waters off central California, establishing the nation's first comprehensive network of marine reserves next to a heavily populated coastline.

The commissioners settled on a network of 27 reserves, stretching from Santa Barbara to Santa Cruz counties, that altogether cover slightly more than 210 square miles of state waters. About half of the reserves forbid any fishing; the others ban commercial fishing or impose other restrictions. Some of the areas to be protected are off Point Sur along the Big Sur coast, Ano Nuevo in northern San Cruz County, Piedras Blancas near San Simeon and off Vandenberg Air Force Base.

This set of reserves, more than six years in the making, is expected to be a model as additional reserves are extended along the entire California coast to help depleted fish populations rebound.

Although the California Legislature passed a law in 1999 calling for a statewide network of reserves, the state's plans have been stalled for years by budget cuts, staffing shortages, and ferocious opposition from commercial and recreational fishermen who argued the closures would imperil their livelihood or favored pastime.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, with funding from private conservation foundations, revived the process by focusing first on the Central Coast before considering reserves in four other sections of the state's 1,100-mile coastline. Southern California waters, from Point Conception in northern Santa Barbara County to the Mexican border, will be the next battleground in this innovative approach to ocean management.

Marine reserves represent the most restrictive effort to revive plummeting fish stocks, some of which, experts say, have fallen by as much as 95 percent in recent decades. Regulations that limit the number of various types of fish that can be caught have failed to stave off the decline marine scientists fear could lead to a collapse of marine life. The reserves, by making all fishing off-limits, are designed to protect every residential marine creature -- from the biggest bass to the smallest snail -- and their oceanic habitat.

In recent months and years, marine reserves have been set up around the Channel Islands off Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, some remote islands of the Florida Keys and the northwest Hawaiian Islands.

Tuesday's 3-2 vote by the five-member commission is the first attempt to set up such a network of reserves in near-shore waters along the continental United States. It means closures next to urban centers with harbors and many fishermen who depend on these waters to make a living or for recreation.

Schwarzenegger, who has been courting conservation groups as part of his bid for re-election, has pushed for full implementation of the state's Marine Life Protection Act of 1999, which sets up the mechanism to establish the statewide reserve network.

The reserves are designed to provide sanctuary for rockfish and halibut, lobster, abalone and shellfish that remain in the same area as opposed to albacore tuna, salmon, sardines and other pelagic fish that swim great distances in the ocean. The protected areas are also expected to benefit the endangered sea otter and other imperiled marine mammals by increasing available food.

Most of the reserves also offer protection for undersea habitat, including kelp forests, rocky reefs, sandy seafloor and deep ocean canyons, such as those in Monterey Bay. For the most part, these areas will be marked off by straight lines on nautical maps. Tuesday's vote came after six hours of impassioned testimony from fishermen who said they would be put out of business; from scuba divers who complained about dramatic loss of fish to photograph; and conservationists who insisted that the reserves were the only way to save the remnants of formerly robust fish populations off the coast.

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