As state wildlife officials move closer to finalizing a Southern California coastal protection plan, enforcement has emerged as a significant issue in the debate.
The various constituents involved in shaping the boundaries of marine protected areas agree enforcement resources are woefully lacking, and all sides point to enforcement short-comings to bolster their opposing positions.
Joy Falk, Laguna Beach's senior animal control officer, recalls police towing a car from a no-parking zone a few years ago. Water poured from the closed trunk. Falk was surprised by the contents: several tanks, a filter and aeration pump, all connected to the car's cigarette lighter to keep the fish alive. "They make a lot of money selling to aquariums…. They also sell 'live rocks'," she said, rocks covered with local marine plant life plucked from tide pools. "This stuff is happening and there is a money payoff for it. And…the way the state budget is …nobody can afford the army that would be necessary to keep an eye on these beaches all night, every night."
In addition to poachers, Falk encounters fishermen and beachgoers who knowingly or not, violate marine laws every day. Her job is a juggling act. "I was trying to deal with a dog hit in traffic in South Laguna, an elderly person with an aggressive raccoon in their home, then a snake in someone's home. Where's my priority? Public safety. So tide pool or fishing enforcement gets a low response priority (and) when we get out there, (the offender is) gone."
The state Fish and Game Commission is midway through an evaluation of protections for coastal areas as mandated by the Marine Life Protection Act. Laguna Beach's diverse marine habitat has emerged as a contentious piece of the study area, which extends from Point Conception to the Mexican border. Rocky reef and kelp forest habitats here act as nurseries for sea life, making Laguna prime marine real estate for both fishermen and environmentalists.
Laguna Beach's City Council turned up the heat of debate June 16 by endorsing the establishment of a marine reserve that would prohibit fishing, but not recreation, within city limits. Part of the rationale was simplifying enforcement: no fishing, no poaching, no taking, period.
Jane Lubchenco, administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the nation's top science agency for climate, oceans and the atmosphere, provided the basis for this rationale, saying no-fishing rules present in marine reserves are the easiest to enforce in a March 19 Los Angeles Times article.
Fishermen say a no-fishing area stretching the length of the city and three miles out to sea would be a pointless mandate and impossible to police given current enforcement levels, and would unfairly punish the responsible fishermen who currently operate in the area, while doing nothing to stop a more serious problem: poachers.
"If you take us off the water, you remove the only people who are watching the violations and calling the authorities," said Rodger Healy, a lobster fisherman and lifelong Laguna resident.
California has the fewest amount of wardens per capita of any state, said Mike McBride, the state Department of Fish and Game's assistant enforcement chief.
The Southern Enforcement District, which includes all coastal counties from Santa Barbara to San Diego, is covered by 58 badged wardens and three patrol boats, including one based in Dana Point Harbor. Recreational fishing accounted for 66 percent of all 2008 citations.
"To run (a patrol boat) five days a week would require double the crew. We don't have…even close to enough people for something like that," McBride said.
"Our numbers of officers have not significantly changed in decades," he said."
Laguna Ocean Foundation, whose docents educate visitors at some local tidepools to stem plundering of the habitat, has logged a doubling of observed violations as tidepool visitation increases.
Yet stricter marine protection laws miss the point, since more enforcement resources are needed to uphold the existing laws, says Healy. "It's like the wild west out there," he said, describing overstretched wardens conducting a recent sting, where every marked trap was looted within 30 hours. Some poachers got away because wardens were too busy writing citations for the ones they did catch.
Currently, 13 Laguna Beach lifeguards are empowered to write citations even as they keep nearly 4 million annual visitors to Laguna's beaches safe. If a violation is egregious, lifeguards could turn to Laguna's sole marine protection officer, out on maternity leave. In her place, calls go to Falk's three-officer animal control unit, which covers Laguna Beach and Laguna Woods.
Falk, though, has not seen an increase in marine protection calls largely because violations go unreported. "The overall benefit (of a city-wide marine reserve) would be good because it makes it very cut and dry. You are not supposed to take anything, period. So we are not having to measure fish, debate species of fish that may or may not be OK to take," she said.
A July 1 article on Salon.com about over-fishing said, "Only 7 percent of coastal (countries in the world) did rigorous scientific assessments to generate fishing policies; a pitiful 1.4 percent have a participatory and transparent process for turning that science into policy; and fewer than 1 percent had strong mechanisms to insure enforcement with fishing policies."