By FRANK HARTZELL
Fort Bragg Advocate-News
A privately-funded state program could turn one quarter of the offshore coasts of Mendocino, Humboldt and Del Norte counties into underwater parks.
Not surprisingly, the creation of Marine Life Protection Areas is controversial among many consistent foes of offshore oil drilling and other ocean development.
But in this case, the usual ocean protectors are so far all opposed to the new level of protection.
The Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA), which passed in 1999, is finally about to be felt in the Fort Bragg area.
Constantly interrupted by the annual state budget debacles, the state has been working sporadically for a decade on creating protected areas in five different regions. The MLPA process for the north central coast, which ends in Point Arena, is now concluding.
This summer, the state seeks to begin the process of creating another set of underwater parks — from Alder Creek just north of Point Arena to the Oregon Border.
Between 20 and 25 percent of the prime fishing areas off Fort Bragg from shore to three miles out could be closed to uses like seaweed harvesting, abalone diving, commercial crab fishing and recreational fishing, those involved in past efforts say.
With state budget crises having drowned the process twice, the MLPA parks are now being created with private money from corporate trusts like the Packard Foundation and the Resources Legacy Fund Foundation.
Local seaweed harvesters, recreational fishers and abalone divers have led a crusade against the implementation of MLPAs. There have been criticisms of the process being confusing and much of the planning being done in private.
The Salmon Restoration Association spent $2,500 this month from the money it raises from the annual World's Largest Salmon Barbecue in an effort to help fishermen and the community understand the issue better. The money will help organize meetings and other public outreach so that locals can better understand the MLPA process.
The SRA pledged another $2,500 once opportunities to explain the process to locals become clearer. For example, the SRA money will seek to help fishermen use GIS software to try out different kinds of maps and see how their information compares to science guidelines.
Although the process represents increased environmental protection for the ocean and is being pushed aggressively by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, local reaction so far has ranged from bemusement to strident opposition.
While the Department of Fish and Game website is loaded with information about the MLPA process, the sections regarding the area from Point Arena to the Oregon border are blank. The website says information will be added when the process gets started this summer.
For the past four years, seaweed harvester John Lewallen of Philo has led opposition to the MLPA process. Lewallen says the process is a corporate plot intended to divide ocean protectors, with the ultimate result being offshore oil drilling.
The waters offshore Mendocino County have long been a target for oil drilling and are being considered for drilling in a process headed by the Obama administration.
Lewallen is among those upset too, that sustainable ocean uses are lumped in with all other kinds of extraction.
Jim Martin, vice president of the Salmon Restoration Association, suggested the study funds. He points out that at a time the state is closing hundreds of revenue producing state parks, there is no state money available for a large number of underwater parks.
"Fishermen will support marine protected areas (MPAs) when they are based in science and have clear, quantifiable goals that are integrated into existing fishery management. However, without the commitment of public funds for the monitoring, evaluation and enforcement of the new network of MPAs, they become paper parks' protected in name only," said Martin.
Martin is also a top official of the Recreation Fishing Association and a member of the Mendocino County Fish and Game Commission. He criticizes the cost of the program, which has multiplied exponentially since it was proposed. He said local impacts in loss of revenue for party boats and commercial fishermen would add greatly to the cost.
"We find the costs estimated to implement the MLPA are simply staggering: at minimum, $35 million per year. Budget concerns are an issue with every government entity in the state, and our county board of supervisors is very concerned about the job losses associated with these impacts to recreational and commercial fishing businesses," Martin said.
Perhaps most irksome to locals is that the MLPA process is not following open government rules. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) has allowed industry to plan its wave energy process in much the same way.
"Special interest groups have hijacked the MLPA," Martin said. "The Packard Foundation has picked up most of the tab for the public meetings and has influenced key policy decisions. Contracts with the MLPA initiative staff are not subject to legislative oversight or public scrutiny, as they would have been had the process been conducted under the Department of Fish and Game."
Martin says state law that requires DFG to take public input and come up with a preferred alternative has been violated by the public-private backroom nature of this process.
"The Department of Fish & Game has been completely marginalized in the MLPA process. The agreement between the governor and the Resources Legacy Fund Foundation stripped the DFG of its statutory role. This worked greatly to the disadvantage of the final regulatory package we have before us today," Martin said.
Cindy Arch, who has been involved in ocean preservation efforts locally for many years, worries that large-scale fishing and even fish farming could be among the motives of the private backers.
"Aquaculture is a big goal. Remember those cute little cards the Monterey Bay Aquarium (Packard) puts out telling folks which seafood is best' and which to avoid. I have a collection from over the years, and guess what? Farmed fish are now the majority of the best' fish to eat," Arch said.
"I find this focus on science policy interface' very disturbing as it is funded by the charitable arms of huge businesses. Look at how much money has been pumped into Silicon Valley to develop technology under the guise of national security, technology that is now being used to research and zone the oceans for the benefit of big business," Arch said.
The Ocean Protection Council, which has worked to defeat energy production in the ocean, has taken a stance against the MLPA as proposed for this area.
Many locals want local planning, not division of the ocean by corporate and state interests.
The Department of Fish and Game is in the early stages of planning local meetings, beginning with Portland, Ore.-based Ecotrust workshops for commercial and recreational fishermen June 22 and 23, and July 2.
For more information about the commercial and recreational fishing workshops, contact Charles Steinback at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The entire process is described at: www.dfg.ca.gov/mlpa/