Thursday, May 21, 2009

Harbor District forms committee for ocean conservation planning

Eureka Times-Standard
Patrick Higgins

On the afternoon of May 11, the Humboldt Bay Harbor, Recreation and Conservation District conference room was filled to capacity for the kickoff meeting of a new committee aimed at developing a North Coast local-interest Marine Protected Area work group. The committee is being formed to bring together interests from Ft. Bragg to Crescent City so that we are well organized before the implementation of the Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) scheduled for 2011.

The MLPA process will result in establishment of Marine Protected Areas (MPA) in our North Coast region, which extends from just north of Point Arena in Mendocino County to the Oregon border. Over the next 18 months you will read more as we try to set up a conservation strategy that protects the near shore ocean environment and its biodiversity, but also limits permanent closures of sport and commercial fisheries that are not based on scientific data.

The harbor district has an interest in helping coordinate North Coast stakeholders because of our charge to maintain ocean and bay related commerce for Humboldt County and because we manage the Shelter Cove harbor that could be severely impacted. Our commission hopes that through coordinated planning and political action across the region we can wield enough clout to prevent substantial and long-lasting damage to our economy and quality of life. I am both a scientist and a conservationist and favor ocean protection, but the MLPA process is not science-based and, therefore, there is no guarantee that it will achieve its conservation objectives.

The MLPA and imposition of MPAs does not prevent pollution to the ocean in areas like Southern California, but rather restricts fishing access as a method of protecting marine resources.

I would favor strategic closure of fish nursery areas, for example, because they can provide more bountiful and sustainable harvests in adjacent coastal areas. The problem is that the MLPA process does not fund acquisition of scientific data as a basis for sound planning and MPA design.

The criteria for MPA spacing is that they be no further than 60 miles from one another and comprise at least 3 square miles. A scientific peer review of some of North America's most esteemed fisheries management scientists found that prescriptions were pulled out of the air, based on intuitive reasoning about larval transport and adult movement distances.

The California Department of Fish and Game (CDFG) and Ocean Protection Council (OPC) work together to implement the MLPA and the ultimate decision is made by the Fish and Game Commission (FGC). There is political sleight of hand in the process, however, that gives undue influence to foundations that have an agenda to close coastal areas to consumptive use as a way of “saving” them. The foundations fund a lot of the public relations and MLPA process through the California Resources Legacy Fund Foundation (RLFF), but they also pack a statewide blue ribbon task force that shapes the final preferred alternative to be adopted by the FGC. This task force was not established by the Legislature when they passed the MLPA. It is comprised of foundation CEOs, offshore oil interests, marina developers and other friends of Governor Schwarzenegger and has been inserted into the process through a memorandum of understanding between CDFG and OPC. This is a corruption of the democratic process that North Coast communities will be protesting to legislators, whose intent is being thwarted.

The blue ribbon panel recently ignored the North Central Coast stakeholders' preferred alternative that was the product of over a year's work. Instead, the proposal now before the FGC would effectively shut down the Point Arena pier by closing productive rocky reefs to both the north and south in MPAs. This permanent closure of highly productive rock fishing grounds deprives this isolated and economically depressed community of one of its few sources of revenue and sustenance.

The North Coast community, like other Californians, overwhelmingly supports local, sustainable harvest of seafood and family-run fishing operations. These will be greatly diminished if MPAs are haphazardly designed. To read the scientific peer review of the MLPA methods and to learn more about why sport and commercial fishermen and coastal communities are concerned, visit the California Fisheries Coalition Web site at The next meeting of the MPA work group will be on June 1 in Eureka at a venue larger than the Harbor District's meeting room (check press announcements or online at

Patrick Higgins is the 5th Division commissioner of the Humboldt Bay Harbor, Recreation and Conservation District.

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