By Samantha Murray
On Thursday in Sacramento, the Fish and Game Commission will hold the last big public comment hearing on a bold new plan to protect coastal waters off California's north central coast. It promises to be a packed house and a lively debate, teeming with opinions as diverse as our state's ocean wildlife.
I have been in the trenches on this issue for two years, working side by side with fishermen, divers, environmentalists, educators and wildlife enthusiasts. This motley bunch was brought together through the Marine Life Protection Act, a law passed in 1999 to stop the downward trend in California fisheries by creating a network of underwater parks, or marine protected areas. The Marine Life Protection Act will do for California's ocean what we've done for 100 years on land: create refuges where wildlife can thrive.
Instead of having agency staff draft the plan, California invited 40 coastal residents to sit down together, roll up their sleeves and design it themselves. Together, we spent thousands of hours poring over charts, negotiating boundaries and weighing ecological and economic factors to map out a marine protected area network between Point Arena and Pigeon Point.
The fruit of our labor is a compromise known as the "Integrated Preferred Alternative." It isn't what any of us had in mind two years ago, but it will protect most of the area's special places and that's what matters. Studies show that marine reserves allow fish and wildlife to grow larger, more abundant and healthier. And that's a win for everyone.
The compromise protects threatened and unique habitats at key sites like Sea Lion Cove, Stewarts Point and the Farallon Islands, while still leaving nearly 90 percent of state waters open to various forms of fishing. Popular spots like Fort Ross, Sea Ranch, Salt Point and Anchor Bay are left open to free diving so that coastal communities continue to reap the economic benefits of abalone-seeking tourists. And the commercial guys at Bodega Bay and Pillar Point still can get out of their harbors safely, even in windy conditions, and return to port with a healthy catch.
With places like Duxbury Reef and San Gregorio left unprotected, some in the conservation camp think this plan is too permissive. And some fishermen still want to see every one of their favorite fishing spots left open. But I believe successful resource management is about give and take. It's about finding the common ground we share as Californians: We all want healthier oceans, and we all want more fish for the future.
Our stakeholder group did find common ground. We started out in opposite corners, but instead of hunkering down, environmentalists went to the docks, got out on boats and worked with local fishermen to create a plan we believe will work for our oceans and for coastal residents.
At the end of the day, the ocean doesn't belong to any one of us. We're all responsible for its health — or for its demise.
So I hope the folks at Thursday's meeting walk in with an understanding of the careful compromise the Integrated Preferred Alternative represents. And I hope that the Fish and Game Commission stays the course and adopts this strong, science-based plan for our region's ocean health.
Samantha Murray is a diver and fisherwoman, and works for Ocean Conservancy. She wrote this article for the Mercury News.