Saturday, January 14, 2012
By ERIK OLSEN
When California’s then-governor, Grey Davis, signed into law the sweeping Marine Life Protection Act in 1999, state wildlife officials knew they’d have a fight on their hands.
The act was designed to simplify and strengthen a byzantine array of existing marine reserves and fishing regulations to create a coherent “ecosystem-based” policy of marine protection meant to allow fish populations, which have been in severe decline, to recover.
Later, the Arnold Schwarzenegger administration divided the state’s 1,100-mile coast into five regions and encouraged the participation of stakeholder groups that would hash out the location, size and scope of the reserves. Conservationists, scientists, fishermen, policy-makers and the public weighed in on the new regulations, each pushing hard for varying degrees of protection.
The meetings were often contentious, with commercial and sport fishermen claiming that the reserves would spell doom to their way of life. Some saw an aggressive green agenda at work.
“What the environmentalists wanted, they wanted to take it all, “ said Michael Thompson, co-owner of Newport Landing Sport Fishing in Newport Beach, Calif. “They wanted to leave us with nothing.”
After much debate, the first phase of the plan went into effect in September 2007, with the creation of 21 reserves encompassing 20 percent of a 350-mile arc of the central California coast. A second phase began in May 2010, with the creation of 29 reserves encompassing approximately 153 square miles, or about 20 percent, of state waters from San Mateo County to Santa Barbara County.
But perhaps the biggest test of the law began on Jan. 1, when reserves went into effect in Southern California, the state’s most populous region. The California Fish and Game Commission began enforcing the new regulations on some 50 marine reserves from Point Concepcion, near Santa Barbara, to the border with Mexico.
The reserves protect about 350 square miles of state waters, putting over 10 percent of the coastline off limits to any kind of fishing or even shell collecting along the beach or in tidal areas. Environmentalists hail the effort as a major milestone in marine conservation.
“No other state has attempted this nor has any state tried to set up as exhaustive and detailed a process,” Greg Helms, a program manager for the Ocean Conservancy in Santa Barbara, said. “It’s a national first, and we know that other states other places around the world are watching.”
In late December, I visited one of the hotly contested new marine reserves in Laguna Beach to produce a video about the effort. The area is favored by fishermen and lobstermen, who say they have lost some of their most cherished fishing grounds. Rodger Healy, a lobsterman featured in the video,says the new reserves may deal him a major blow.
“I stand to lose probably 60 to 65 percent of the area I fish,” he said. “Depending on the year, it’s probably 75 percent of my income.”
Michael Thompson of Newport Landing Sport Fishing said he expected a similar drop in business. “We lost about 30 percent of our area,” he said. Mr. Thompson said he was now redirecting resources to other activities like whale watching, burials at sea and harbor cruises.
The California Department of Fish and Game said that there had been no citations or arrests related to violations of the rules.
Paul Hamdorf, assistant chief of law enforcement for the California Department of Fish and Game, said that “there have been violations, but since we’re just eleven days into it, we don’t want to issue a bunch of citations to people who make mistakes. We’re trying to educate now instead of making people angry.”
Conservationists and many scientists hail marine reserves as the best way to rebuild once-thriving fish populations in California, which in some species have declined by over 90 percent. They point to numerous studies showing the success of marine reserves around the world. In one scientific survey of more than 100 reserves worldwide, scientists found a 446 percent average increase in biomass of animals and plants..
Locally, biologists monitoring fish populations and kelp within the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary say they have documented a 70 percent increase in biomass within the reserve after only five years of protection.
“The difference inside the reserve versus outside the reserve is so dramatic,” David Kushner, a biologist with the National Park Service, said. “If you’re swimming underwater, it is pretty easy to see the difference. You’ll see larger fish such as sheepshead and kelp bass and ocean white fish and large lobsters.
“Immediately upon swimming outside of the marine reserve, those fish are all of a sudden smaller and there’s fewer of them,” he said.
The ecosystem approach favored by the state of California is unparalleled. But questions abound over whether the economically strapped Department of Fish and Game will be be able to properly enforce the rules regarding the new reserves.
Indeed, some local conservation groups have taken it upon themselves to police the rocky tidal areas, posting volunteers who will gingerly inform recreational fishermen and shell-collecting beachcombers that they may be breaking the law.
“It’s a big change, and it should be a big boost to our marine life,” says Ray Heimstra, associate director of Orange County Coastkeeper. “It will create areas where they can recover and we can hopefully in a number of years see the types of populations we saw far in the past.”