Thursday, May 21, 2009

Politics is a poor way to manage our Marine reserves

Watsonville Register-Pajaronian
Thursday, May 21st, 2009

Californians concerned about protecting our ocean should pay attention to the ongoing Marine Life Protection Act process that’s supposed to improve ocean health, biodiversity and marine ecosystems off the coast of California.

Because, so far, those goals aren’t being met.

That’s because the implementation of the act has failed to address, much less resolve, longstanding, serious water-quality problems and has simply given the illusion of protection by opting for the low-hanging fruit of shutting down fishing. During the Central Coast portion of this ocean-protection process, comprehensive and scientifically based recommendations on how to implement the mandated marine protected areas were effectively ignored.

The way the act was implemented in Monterey illustrates important mistakes that, if recognized by the leadership and corrected, can make the upcoming efforts much more effective in preserving and protecting our ocean. We all know that people come to Monterey, and many other coastal communities, to eat fresh, locally caught seafood and to enjoy the uniqueness of our fishing culture, like Cannery Row. We have a deep heritage of commercial and recreational fishing, which supports Monterey’s larger tourism industry.

But the effort to carve out ocean areas for new fishing restrictions along the Central Coast has unfortunately rejected a comprehensive approach to achieve sustainability goals. The resulting negative impact on the fishing community has made it more costly and dangerous to catch fish. And it’s hurt our broader economy at a time when we can least afford it. In 1995, there were more than 150 commercial fishing boats operating out of Monterey’s harbor, but in the last few years, that number has decreased drastically. There are now only about 30 full-time boats and just 73 in total.

And that number is expected to drop even more. As Monterey’s harbormaster, I’ve seen firsthand how local fishermen are dispirited — and even put out of business — because the implementation process didn’t value their needs or their safety. It didn’t value the food they provide to the public, much less their recommendations for how to achieve ocean protection and maintain viable fishing communities.

The political process has taken away a large percentage of the prime fishing grounds from recreational and commercial fishermen based on the beliefs of a few marine-protection advocates, rather than a need founded in peer-reviewed science or supported by broad-based public opinion. Although recently improved, officials originally didn’t see value in appointing a balanced scientific team — one that reflected the diversity of all scientific disciplines and perspectives. But the imbalance favoring expansive restrictions remains intact in the guidelines for determining the size and spacing of new marine protected areas.

Further, an inherent conflict of interest hasn’t been recognized or addressed. Many of these same scientific team members who provide advice are also stakeholders, having a great deal to benefit for themselves and their careers by the creation of no-fishing zones near their institutions.

What’s more, there’s been no coordination or effort to integrate existing federally and state-protected areas into the new plan. The resulting marine protected areas’ size and spacing guidelines provide few alternatives to any other stakeholders — like fishermen. This results in redundancy, but little environmental benefit, and that’s certainly not what Californians want.

A 2007 poll for the Alliance of Communities for Sustainable Fisheries shows that two-thirds of the public support small, independent fishermen and recreational fishing activities. Californians want smart management of marine ecosystems and fish resources, not total ocean closures that simply hurt local economies without delivering real environmental benefits.

When asked which is the better management strategy — to set aside some areas and not let people fish in those areas even if it means that fishing is displaced, or to manage all of the ocean for sustainable use through science-based fishing quotas — by a nearly 3-to-1 margin Californians selected the option for sustainable use of the entire ocean. That’s significant when compared with the way in which the Marine Life Protection Act has been implemented thus far.

California deserves better than this. As the Marine Life Protection Act moves into Southern California, and later Northern California, the implementation of this law needs to achieve a more balanced process, crafting fair, equitable solutions that preserve a balance: healthy oceans, sustainable seafood resources and economically strong coastal and harbor communities. Otherwise, we will see a steady destruction of harbor communities, along with our ability to enjoy the ocean and put fresh, local seafood on the table.


Steve Scheiblauer is Monterey’s Harbormaster and has been directly involved each of the state of California’s attempts to implement the Marine Life Protection Act, as well as other planning efforts for marine protected areas. The opinions of columnists are not necessarily those of the Register-Pajaronian.

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