Monday, July 20, 2009

No way to guard new ocean sanctuaries, state game wardens say

The Sacramento Bee

Saturday, Jul. 18, 2009

By Matt Weiser

It seems a contradiction: State game wardens oppose creating 30 new ocean sanctuaries on California's coast to protect sensitive fisheries.

The plan would ban or restrict fishing on 153 square miles of ocean between Santa Cruz and Mendocino. The goal is refuge for threatened fish, allowing them to grow bigger and healthier to breed stronger populations in the future.

The need for ocean sanctuaries isn't disputed. And, in concept, the zones would enhance California's reputation as a global leader in environmental protection.

There's just one problem:

Wardens, backed by fishing groups, say the state budget mess makes it difficult to serve existing protected areas. Creating more, they say, represents an impossible mandate.

"We can't protect the resources in these areas that have been designated by the public as needing special attention," said Lt. Bob Farrell, a representative of the game wardens' union.

Farrell is part-time skipper of the Albacore, a patrol boat based in Humboldt Bay. It is the state's only long-range vessel north of San Francisco. Because of budget woes, the 65-foot craft lacks a crew. It has not left its dock since May.

Conservation groups believe the ocean sanctuary process should go forward. California should not delay a chance to protect the ocean for future generations, they say. They argue that cooperative agreements with other agencies can protect the areas.

"The cost of doing nothing is exorbitant," said Richard Charter of Bodega Bay, a government relations consultant for Defenders of Wildlife. "If we don't get busy with the restoration of some of these damaged fisheries and ecosystems, we will never get back what we once had here."

In 2007, the state created 28 sanctuaries between Santa Cruz and Santa Barbara under the Marine Life Protection Act.

The new areas, set to be adopted by the state Fish and Game Commission on Aug. 5, represent the act's second phase and cover some of the state's most heavily used and sensitive coastline.

One goal is to study closed areas to measure attempts to restore fish populations. But critics say it will be impossible to prove scientific merit of the sanctuaries if officials can't stop illegal fishing.

A chronic shortage of state game wardens has already made patrolling existing sanctuaries difficult.

On Monday, four boats reportedly got away with fishing in a closed sanctuary near San Simeon because game wardens were not available, said Todd Tognazzini, president of the wardens' union.

Tognazzini, a San Luis Obispo County game warden, heard about the incident but couldn't respond because he was on a mandated furlough day. Unlike the California Highway Patrol, wardens were not exempted from furloughs.

"Things like Monday are happening on a much more regular basis than I've seen in my career, which spans almost 30 years with the department," he said. "If you're truly going to study an area without fully knowing angling activity is being kept out, you're really not getting good science."

The wardens' union on July 9 asked the Fish and Game Commission to postpone the new marine sanctuaries, at least until furloughs are lifted.

They have support from fishing organizations, which have been critical of the sanctuary process from the beginning. But they also fear that once areas are closed to fishing, lawbreakers will continue to exploit them, which could lead to a demand for more closures to protect threatened species.

Charter accused fishing groups of grasping at the budget crisis and the enforcement problem merely to prevent new fishing closures.

But Vern Goehring, manager of the California Fisheries Coalition, said his members aren't opposed to marine protection. He said they are sounding the alarm about another unfunded state mandate.

"If you don't actually enforce them, then the hoped-for benefits are unlikely to materialize," he said. "It doesn't make any sense to do this now."

California has 203 active game wardens to cover the entire state. This is recognized as the lowest per-capita warden staffing in North America.

And while it's true that cooperative agreements with other agencies can help, none has the ability to patrol vast stretches of open ocean for days at a time, or to board and inspect suspect vessels.

The federal government has no marine enforcement fleet of its own in California. State wardens are federally deputized to enforce wildlife laws out to 200 miles from shore.

The Department of Fish and Game has improved its marine patrol staffing to cover the existing protected areas since they were adopted. But there are still gaps.

Patrols based in Moss Landing and Morro Bay – closest to existing sanctuaries – share an engineer. The engineer maintains complex engines and electronics and serves as backup vessel operator.

Farther north it's worse: The patrol based in Humboldt Bay has no full-time staff, and the boat in Berkeley has no lieutenant. The state has no long-range patrol boats in between.

Even if these vacancies are filled, it still wouldn't be enough, according to the department's own estimates.

In December, Enforcement Chief Nancy Foley told the commission the department needs 13 game wardens to cover existing marine protected areas between Santa Barbara and Santa Cruz.

Another 22 are needed for the sanctuaries proposed between Santa Cruz and Mendocino, and 67 more to cover sections of coastline still moving through the Marine Life Protection Act process.

Paying for new wardens, and the boats and other equipment they need, would cost $27 million in the first year, Foley estimated, and $17 million annually thereafter.

She called this merely "adequate" to ensure warden patrols eight hours a day, not around the clock.

The task force that oversees sanctuary planning recognizes the enforcement need but has deferred a solution.

"Right now, I'm not sure there's any new help coming," said Tony Warrington, the department's assistant chief of enforcement. "So we'll be spreading an already thin staff of wardens out thinner."

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