Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Sutton downplays conflict in ocean talks

Monterey County Herald

Herald Staff Writer

Michael Sutton of Monterey says he will take part in decisions about the state Marine Life Protection Act as a member of the state Fish and Game Commission. He dismisses allegations by critics that he has a conflict of interest.

Sutton, 51, who was reappointed to the commission last week for a six-year term by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, says the allegations are an effort by special-interest groups to prevent the marine environmental law from moving forward.

At a commission meeting earlier this month, the panel was presented an anonymous letter and other materials accusing Sutton of having a conflict of interest because he works for the Monterey Bay Aquarium and was previously employed by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation.

The argument of the author, identified as a "concerned citizen," was that Sutton should recuse himself from commission business concerning the Marine Life Protection Act because the aquarium supports establishing marine protected areas, and the Packard Foundation has given millions of dollars to support the state law through its Resources Legacy Fund Foundation.

Sutton and a deputy director of the commission say his job at the aquarium and his role on the commission aren't in conflict.

But others, primarily sport and commercial fishing interests, say otherwise.

"The aquarium is pushing its agenda on the public through its people," said Jiri Nozicka, a Monterey commercial fisherman and spokesman for People United for American Commercial Fisheries, an industry advocacy group.

Sutton is vice president and founding director of the aquarium's Center for the Future of the Oceans. Before joining the aquarium, he was director of the Packard Foundation's conservation and science program from 1999 to 2004.

"There are no conflicts," he said last week.

The Marine Life Protection Act, passed in 1999, will establish a network of marine protected areas along California's coast. In some zones, fishing is banned, and in others new restrictions on sport and commercial fishing are enforced.

Some fisherman object to marine protected areas because they say they are being driven out of business.

Sutton said that while the aquarium may have a position, he does not necessarily have to share it.

"I'm going to make up my mind based on evidence," he said.

Sutton was first appointed to the commission in 2007 to complete the term of another commissioner.

Adrianna Shea, deputy director of the commission, said the state Attorney General's Office evaluated Sutton at that time and found no conflicts of interest. There is no new information to merit an investigation, she said last week.

Sutton said attorneys for the aquarium evaluated the potential for conflicts of interest before his first appointment.

"We found no reportable conflicts and nothing has changed," he said.
Sutton said his job and his concern about the ocean do not create conflicts for him as a commissioner.

"There is one job, no matter where you are coming from. It doesn't matter what our background is," he said.

Regulations for California's first 29 marine protected areas, located between Pigeon Point on the San Mateo County coast and Point Conception near Santa Barbara, took effect in September 2007.

Other zones, in the planning stages, will be established from Santa Cruz County to Mendocino County, and from Point Conception to the Mexican border.

"Powerful interests in Southern California don't want to see it happen," Sutton said.

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