The state and its program to rope off or curtail the use of wide stretches of coastal waters is finding itself in increasingly rough seas as it moves north.
Those who fear the Marine Life Protection Act Initiative has overstepped its bounds to the hazard of fishermen and other gatherers have, as the program has moved from region to region, been called “a vocal minority.” The state secretary of resources, Mike Chrisman, has called them, “Those few who seem opposed.”
But as the process moves to the North Coast, the initiative is facing a coalition of county and city governments, special districts and tribal interests who have strongly supported a delay in the program. They are worried that, even though the region sees only a tiny fraction of the fishing and other extractive activities that occur in points south, Marine Protected Areas could be set up not so unlike those in the rest of the state.
Others have a hard time believing any amount of opposition will stop the process, and worry that groups and individuals who boycott the effort would simply be shooting themselves in the foot.
Initiative Program Manager Melissa Miller-Henson said that the concerns voiced on the North Coast are valid, but added that the planning process she directs carries no regulatory authority -- that's held by the California Fish and Game Commission and the state Department of Fish and Game. She also said that the act isn't intended to be a fisheries management tool, but rather a means of protecting whole ecosystems from human impacts.
”What you are doing is managing human behavior,” Miller-Henson said.
Miller-Henson said that it's entirely possible that the state may choose not to implement the recommendations developed through the initiative's process, be it for lack of funds for monitoring or enforcement or for other reasons.
The initiative over the next several months will be collecting information on the region to determine where best Marine Protected Areas might be drawn along the Humboldt, Mendocino and Del Norte coastline. Those areas would be developed into three categories, and vary between allowing no fishing or other consumptive activities, to allowing some commercial fishing.
There's limited scientific information available on many of the marine habitats along the North Coast, and even less on the effects fishing and other activities have on those habitats. There are also only about a dozen commercial hook-and-line fishermen in the region, and a much smaller fleet of sport fishermen than in other areas. The initiative has scheduled a data-gathering workshop in Eureka for July 23 to make sure it has as much information as it can get.
Miller-Henson said that protected areas aren't developed necessarily to restore the vitality of an area -- though they could -- but can also serve as a haven for marine life into the future. It's also not a question, she said, of whether there is an impact on the area.
In that sense, the network of protected areas on the North Coast probably won't be dramatically different from those in other areas, Miller-Henson said.
A data-poor process isn't appropriate to the North Coast, reads a letter endorsed by North Coast counties and cities expected to soon be delivered to Chrisman. The information used so far by the initiative to draft Marine Protected Areas falls far below standards used in other preserve efforts, the letter reads. It also points out that a request to fund relevant studies that would be useful was turned down by the state's Ocean Protection Council, and asks that the process be delayed until that information can be gathered.
The letter was written as part of the Humboldt Bay Harbor, Recreation and Conservation District's working group assembled to consider the process.
Fishermen here are organized and ready to participate, said Casey Allen, a longtime sport fisherman with Humboldt Area Saltwater Anglers. Allen said the hope is to steer the initiative in a direction that won't be prohibitive to fishing and impact the local economy. While many anglers might want to see the process delayed or canceled, Allen said, there is no plan to boycott the process.
”If we didn't participate, they would just close whatever they wanted to,” Allen said.
Humboldt County 1st District Supervisor Jimmy Smith said that the initiative should not come to the North Coast with a presumption that the MPA network will be similar to those in other areas.
”It is different, and recognize that when you come to our front door,” Smith said. “We have these hugely rich fishing grounds and very restricted fisheries.”
But he said that there is little doubt there are some in Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's administration that want to see the process fast-tracked, and aren't interested in the long history of fishing and strict fishery management on the North Coast.
Currently, prohibitions include a closure of all areas deeper than 120 feet to rockfishing, closure of rockfishing when the state believes a quota of yelloweye rockfish has been reached, and the Klamath Management Zone, which severely restricts salmon fishing in Northern California and Southern Oregon.
The Schwarzenegger administration has claimed that the MLPA process is well-funded, and the planning process is, thanks to a public-private partnership that includes the Packard Foundation. “There's no reason, funding or otherwise, for the process supporting the law to be postponed,” Chrisman wrote in a terse letter to the Fish and Game Commission in June, after some commissioners raised questions about the wisdom of moving forward in the current budgetary climate.
But the monitoring and enforcement of the restricted zones being developed would cost the state some $35 million a year, and Commissioner Daniel Richards shot back at Chrisman for suggesting the commission impose $35 million in unfunded costs on the department when there isn't even a plan to maintain its funding beyond next June. The Legislative Analyst's Office recently recommended the MLPA be suspended, and the Joint Legislative Budget Committee voted to strip general fund money for MLPA activities, Richards wrote.
”That does not sound to me like any level of support from the Legislature,” Richards wrote.
Fred Euphrat staffs the state's Joint Committee on Fisheries and Aquaculture for its chair, Sen. Patricia Wiggins, D-Santa Rosa. He said the senator holds that the 1999 marine life legislation is good, and should move forward. However, Euphrat said, Wiggins shares worries about how the process will play out on the North Coast.
”The senator is very concerned that no one loses their livelihood from the implementation of the act,” Euphrat said.
Euphrat said Wiggins' office is hoping to team up with Assemblyman Wesley Chesbro, D-Arcata, to hold an independent forum sometime in August. In the long term, he said, if the MPAs for the North Coast end up being unpalatable for the community, Wiggins may choose to find some remedy through the fisheries committee, which makes recommendations to the Fish and Game Commission.
Chesbro said in a statement Friday that he's skeptical of the process to develop MPAs, though he voted for the act itself in 1999.
”The process must be based on sound science,” Chesbro said. “I have been saying, 'show me the science.' So far I'm not satisfied with the answers I've been getting.”
Others also doubt that the planning process will be delayed. Pete Nichols with Humboldt Baykeeper said he shares concerns about the availability of ecological data and the general evolution of the process, but said a boycott of the process would be counterproductive.
A better tack, he believes, is for a unified group to craft a single proposal to submit to the initiative, that would be passed on to rulemakers for adoption. Nichols said he wants conservation interests to meet with tribes and commercial and sport fishermen -- who have the best regional information -- to come to an agreement. Otherwise, it could be the initiative itself that draws the map, he said.
”I don't want to see this be a divide-and-conquer kind of thing,” Nichols said.
IF YOU GO:
A series of meetings is starting the Marine Life Protection Act Initiative on the North Coast.
Three open houses -- which aim to outline the program -- will be held, all beginning at 5 p.m..
July 20 -- Wharfinger Building on Marine Way in Eureka
July 21 -- Dana Gray Elementary School on Chestnut Street in Fort Bragg
July 22 -- Cultural Center on Front Street in Crescent City
A data-gathering workshop is scheduled for July 23 in Eureka from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. An exact location is expected to be announced next week. The meeting is meant to allow organizations and individuals to provide information that may be useful to the initiative process.