Originally published in The Santa Barbara Independent and Independent.com.
Fishermen and Environmentalists Square Off Over Marine Reserves in Southern California
It’s the golden hour on the Santa Barbara waterfront, with a warm, practically peaceful light sparkling into the early July evening. But across the street from East Beach inside Fess Parker’s DoubleTree Hotel, it feels like a fist fight might break out.
Photo by Paul Wellman
There, a divergent and impressively complete cross-section of people who care about the Santa Barbara Channel are gathered in a conference room, clutching coffee mugs, talking among themselves, looking at large maps of the Southern California coastline, and filling out lengthy public comment forms. While the discourse is civil on the surface, the underlying tension is undeniable as sea urchin divers, commercial trawlers, lobstermen, biologists, elected officials, professional environmentalists, casual conservationists, and other assorted ocean-minded folk make their way through the state-sanctioned Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) workshop.
More than a decade since being voted into reality by the California Legislature, the preservation-motivated, multi-phased MLPA process is fast coming to a head for those who live south of Point Conception. Aiming to create a patchwork of marine-protected areas (MPAs) — places where little to no fishing, be it recreational or commercial, is allowed — along the entire coast of California, the process is, depending on whom you ask, either a crucial power play in the name of preservation that will protect our underwater worlds for generations to come, or a brutal aquatic land grab that threatens to deliver a death blow to our state’s already embattled fishing heritage.
But regardless of where you fall in this contentious spectrum of opinion, one thing is certain: By early 2010, if all goes as scheduled, the process carried out at the DoubleTree that July night finally will be complete, and fishing in the near-shore waters of the Southern California Bight — which extends from the westernmost edge of the Santa Barbara Channel to the Mexican border — will never be the same.
Rules of the Game
“Ocean management, for the past 75 or so years, has been a private party between recreational and commercial fisherman,” argued longtime ocean watchdog Greg Helms a couple days before the DoubleTree meeting. “The Marine Life Protection Act changes that.” As the Ocean Conservancy’s Pacific Conservation Manager, the Santa Barbara-based Helms is one of 64 official regional stakeholders in the Southern California MLPA process. Overwhelmingly approved by the state Legislature in 1999, the MLPA requires that California redesign its MPAs — which range from marine reserves where there’s zero fishing, to marine parks that allow for limited sportfishing, to marine conservation areas where there’s both commercial and sportfishing — in such a way that the preservation of ocean life and ecosystems is made the top priority.
After two false starts by California Department of Fish and Game, which was hamstrung primarily by lack of funding and scant public participation, the process began in earnest in 2004, when the state teamed up with the privately operated Resources Legacy Fund Foundation (RLFF). An über-endowed Sacramento outfit dedicated to the long-term preservation of natural resources, the RLFF brokered an unprecedented — some would say controversial — memorandum of understanding with the state that created a public/private partnership to implement the MLPA, with the RLFF picking up the bulk of the tab. Thus far, the RLFF — which gets its money from California’s wealthiest philanthropists as well as the country’s leading environmental donors — has dished out nearly $20 million to pay for the MLPA process infrastructure, from the salaries and travel expenses of support staff (who technically work for the state) to portions of monitoring and enforcement measures.
With steady funding in place, the state’s 1,100-mile shoreline was split into five study regions: the North Coast, from Oregon south to Alder Creek; the North Central Coast, from Alder Creek south to Pigeon Point; the San Francisco Bay; the Central Coast, from Pigeon Point to Point Conception; and the South Coast, from Point Conception to Mexico. These regions were then tasked with working toward a cohesive network of MPAs via a stakeholder-driven process. If all went according to the memorandum of understanding, the state would have a new and improved hodgepodge of MPAs dotting the coastline by 2011.
To ensure that the goals and spirit of the MLPA are met throughout the process, the California Natural Resources Agency — the state government’s wing that oversees a number of departments, from Fish and Game to Parks & Water Resources — appointed a seven-member Blue Ribbon Task Force (BRTF) for each region. The BRTF — whose members are chosen for their perceived fairness and public policy experience but don’t necessarily have anything to do with fishing — is also supported by an initiative staff and a team of about 20 volunteer scientists who are on hand to help evaluate and interpret the proposals generated by the stakeholder groups for their scientific merit in achieving optimal preservation. Rounding out the MLPA players are the regional stakeholders themselves — a fishing-interest heavy mix of commercial and recreational fishermen as well as conservationists, harbor masters, members of the California Coastal Commission, scientists, Chamber of Commerce representatives, and anyone else with a stake in the sea — and an independently contracted team of facilitators brought in to make sure that the often at-odds stakeholders actually work toward compromise.
Once a region’s stage is set, the stakeholders break up into smaller, more manageable groups and have three separate rounds of occasionally fruitful but usually frustrating brainstorming, horse-trading, and preserve design sessions. After the third round of deliberations, the BRTF — armed with feedback from the science team — makes a final call on the various arrays of MPAs presented and either selects the best one or makes a hybrid that is deemed appropriate. That then gets passed along to the California Fish and Game Commission for a final vote of approval. The entire process, from the BRTF appointments to the final commission vote, takes anywhere from one to two years.
By inviting so many interests to the table, using a science-based protocol, and working through a transparent public process, the hope is that compromises — albeit painful ones — that all parties can live with will rise to the top, and a better future for California’s coast will emerge. While the jury is still out on whether that will come true, the journeys — with the Central Coast region completed in 2007, the North Central Coast region currently at the final approval stage, and the South Coast one entering round three of stakeholder deliberations next week — have been nothing if not deeply troubling for all parties involved. The fisherfolk feel unfairly and unnecessarily pushed to the brink of ruin, with skyrocketing gas prices, sweeping regulations on take limits, catch size, and equipment, and pre-existing fishing area closures in both state and federal waters — with the feds’ Channel Islands marine preserves being one of the biggest — threatening their livelihood even before the MLPA was a reality. Meanwhile, the preservationists, who liken their struggle to the early-20th-century push for the National Park Service, believe that without setting aside swaths of our sea wilderness for wholesale protection, the ocean environment and the critters that call it home are destined for doom.
“The bottom line is that we all own these resources,” said Helms. “So we ought to manage it for all our benefit — not just those who harvest it. This isn’t a fisheries tool. It has a much bigger purpose than that.”
What Price Preservation?
There’s no denying, at least from a global perspective, that the world’s oceans generally are under siege. Overfishing, widespread coastal development, climate change, pollution, and other threats are conspiring at a never-before-seen pace to forever alter and even destroy water-based ecosystems. It was in the bipartisan spirit of combating these trends that the MLPA was passed by California legislators 10 years ago and, as supporters like to point out, signed by a Democratic governor and now aggressively pushed toward implementation by a Republican one. But bipartisanship aside, the fast-tracking process is not popular with everyone, especially Santa Barbara’s fishermen.
“Make no mistake,” said Santa Barbara’s harbor master and South Coast stakeholder Mick Kronman, “this is a conservation exercise, and people, especially fishermen, need to come to terms with that. However, if we don’t strike the golden mean [between fishing and preservation interests], it has the potential for permanently changing the face of Santa Barbara’s waterfront, and I don’t mean that in a good way.”
With roughly 100 commercial fishing boats running out of Santa Barbara at any given time of year and hundreds more recreational boats working the nearby waters, Kronman estimated that fishing for lobster, sea urchin, crab, bonito, squid, and other seafoods comprise at least a $25-million industry when all the economic impacts are tallied. If the South Coast MLPA process lands too heavily on the conservation side, the harbor’s fishermen fear that not only will they be hard-pressed to make ends meet due to loss of vital fishing grounds — particularly because the best spots for fishing, such as Naples Reef and Augustine’s Reef along the Gaviota Coast, also make the most scientific sense for preserving — but that competition for what turf remains will reach an all-time high as boats travel from throughout the state to work the fish-fertile waters of the Santa Barbara Channel.
“I could walk you through the harbor right now and point out entire rows of boats that won’t be here anymore if we do this thing wrong,” explained stakeholder Jeff Maassen, who is vice president of the Commercial Fishermen of Santa Barbara. “Nobody wants this place to become another ticky-tacky, tourist-only plastic yacht marina like Dana Point or Morro Bay.” And, in the day and age of ever-increasing carbon footprint consciousness and eat-local campaigns, the import-only implications of a devastated commercial fishing fleet is something most people would agree we can ill afford.
Given the high stakes, it should come as no surprise that tempers, historically hot around these types of debate, have been flaring during the advancing stages of the South Coast process. While under-the-breath obscenities and stakeholder shouting matches have been par for the course, there’s perhaps no better illustration of the tensions than the meltdown surrounding a planned Santa Barbara Harbor cleanup in early May. Typically an annual day of cooperation among all who use the harbor, from enviros to trawlers, this year’s installment of Operation Clean Sweep was the flash point for a brew of nastiness that still is rocking boats in both the conservation and commercial fishing camps.
As part of the MLPA process, Santa Barbara Channelkeeper, in conjunction with Santa Monica Baykeeper, co-authored an array of preserves they submitted for stakeholder evaluation. Since the nonprofit generally is known as a water quality organization, Channelkeeper’s submittal — which focused on the conservation aims at the price of socio-economic viability and thus included MPAs in such coveted fishing grounds as Point Conception, Carpinteria Reef, and Naples Reef — was considered by many Santa Barbara fishermen to be both a departure from the organization’s mission statement as well as an undeniable middle finger to their way of life. For the fishermen, several of whom actually had spent years volunteering for Channelkeeper doing water quality testing, the plan, formally known as External Plan C, was a form of treason.
“I just feel betrayed by them,” said stakeholder Merit McCrea, a former charter boat captain and current UCSB Bren School graduate student. The fallout not only saw numerous fishermen refuse to participate in May’s harbor cleanup as a point of protest but also led to the resignation of longtime Channelkeeper boardmember and former commercial fisherman Steve Dunn, who’d been with the nonprofit since it was founded in 1999. In response, Channelkeeper recently issued a public statement that clarified its mission to “protect and restore the Santa Barbara Channel and its watersheds” and to combat “continued distribution of misleading and spurious information” about the organization.
The now infamous External Plan C was rejected resoundingly by stakeholders earlier this year, even though it had widespread support from environmental organizations. Despite that rebuff, the BRTF is saying that, while the specific plan indeed is gone, its spirit, intentions, and ideas are anything but defeated. Last week, the South Coast’s BRTF chair Don Benninghoven, a retired executive director for the League of California Cities and a Santa Barbara resident, promised, “Nothing is off the table yet.”
Fish, Funding, and Conspiracy Theories
Ironically, for such a contentious process, there are two critical parts of the MLPA debate on which all sides agree: First, preserves are not necessarily bad things and can actually help the long-term health of certain fisheries, and, second, the available science being used to support arguments both for and against preserves is woefully inadequate. Fishery science inherently is weak because no one really knows how many fish should exist in any given region, so those in favor of conservation end up pushing for preserves even though the target fish levels are unknown.
But while such baseline data is hard to come by, the results of MPAs are increasingly understood, and the benefits are undeniable, according to experts such as Steve Gaines, director of UCSB’s Marine Science Institute, who serves on the MLPA science advisory team along with faculty members of UCSB’s Bren School. “The experiment of setting up reserves has been done more than 200 times around the world, and we know a lot about how ecosystems respond,” said Gaines, pointing to existing preserves around Australia, New Zealand, and Africa. “For starters, we see, on average, about a tripling of biomass within preserve boundaries.” But the benefits don’t have to stop there, said Gaines, explaining that, by carefully selecting preserve boundaries with an eye on ocean currents and fish larvae flow, there’s potential to create systems that have conservation powers far beyond the sum of their individual parts. Properly placed preserves lead to more and bigger fish, which is a win-win for both those who want to catch the fish and those who want to save them. And since “fish don’t know where the boundary of the reserve is,” Gaines said that fishing along preserve edges often leads to more and bigger catches. As for the preserves already in place in our backyard, according to the Ocean Conservancy’s Helms, in the five years since the Channel Islands system was put in place, “the fish have gotten bigger, and there are more of them.” (It is also worth noting that for commercial fishermen, specifically lobstermen, the Channel Islands preserves have had a serious financial impact. According to data from UCSB, Santa Barbara’s commercial lobster fleet has suffered a roughly 30-percent cut to their bottom line.)
Fishermen, however, aren’t quite convinced. In fact, some aren’t even sure that MPAs are the right way to go, at least for Southern California, where anglers — relying on data compiled by Fish and Game — say the current regulatory tools are working well enough. “It is common sense,” said stakeholder Bruce Steele, a commercial sea urchin diver in Santa Barbara. “It is not in the fishermen’s best interest to crash the stock of the species they make a living from. We don’t want to kill the goose that laid the golden egg.” Acknowledging that there certainly are imperfections in management and high-profile closures like the abalone, Steele and others point to increasing fish stocks across the vast majority of Southern California’s fisheries as proof of a not-so-dire situation. That claim is bolstered by a highly anticipated article written in part by fisheries expert and former MLPA process participant Ray Hilborn, released this week in Science magazine, which shows California has the lowest fishery exploitation rate anywhere in the world. Said Steele, “The reality is we are doing a fairly good job of management.”
In the face of such evidence, the looming MLPA reality proves a bitter pill to swallow for many in the fishing community, whether they are one of the estimated 40 million recreational anglers who fish at least one day in California each year or one of the roughly 1,400 commercial fishermen based in the Golden State. On top of that, these fishermen aren’t even sure the doctor giving them the pill has the best intentions. “I am calling bullshit on this entire process,” stated frustrated Santa Barbara crab fisherman Charlie Graham, who figures he’ll lose “about 30 percent” of his traditional fishing grounds under the current “fisher-friendly” proposal. “There are just too many incestuous relationships between the people paying for this whole process, the science behind it, and the people who will implement it,” said Graham, echoing the conspiracy theories uttered by almost every fisherman contacted for this story.
They’re not alone. The California Fair Political Practices Commission and current state Senate Majority Leader Dean Florez also have looked into different parts of the complex private/public partnership between Sacramento and the Resources Legacy Fund Foundation that governs the MLPA process. Although both official inquiries absolved those involved of any wrongdoing or conflicts of interest, fearful fishermen like Graham remain worried. They focus on the money trail behind the RLFF, which is funded in part by philanthropic organizations such as the Packard, Annenberg, and Morris foundations, all of which are considered to be longtime nemeses to fishermen. These same organizations often provide key funding for ocean-based scientific research, including more than a few projects being carried out by members of the MLPA scientific advisory team. Add to this mix the unprecedented public/private partnership model that’s devoid of day-to-day oversight by any elected official and a process that fundamentally identifies fishermen as the force working against oceanic preservation — climate change and ocean acidification aren’t part of the process, and sewage outfall pipes were only included recently as a legitimate variable — and there’s ample room for conspiracy theories of the highest level.
These speculations are of course met with flat-faced denial by RLFF spokesperson Marty Wilson and BRTF chair Don Benninghoven, who both bristled recently at the notion that the final result of the MLPA process is a foregone, anti-fishing conclusion. Admitting that all too often “policy usually does end up where funding starts,” Benninghoven explained, “There has been no pressure on me whatsoever. I have never been told by anybody or even hinted as to how this process should turn out and, believe me, that is rare in Sacramento.” Added Wilson, “It is not as big as a conspiracy as our fishermen friends like to believe. The fact is our oceans are in crisis, but the foundation has no say in how the process is run or how its outcome will look.”
Current State of the Sea
This week, the BRTF for the South Coast region listened to their science team’s interpretation of various MPA systems currently on the table and how they speak to the requirements of the Marine Life Protection Act itself. With about a half-dozen proposals still up for debate — including an external plan fleshed out by a recreational and commercial fishing alliance — the opinion of the science team was that too many of the plans looked too much alike, most of the proposed MPAs actually are getting smaller rather than larger during the process, and that, generally speaking, the degree to which the proposals met the scientific guidelines were trending toward “minimum” levels rather than “preferred” levels. In short, the scientists are finding that the South Coast MLPA process is moving in the exact opposite direction that the law requires. “If anything,” said UCSB’s Steve Gaines, “the proposals are converging away from the guidelines.”
Next week in San Diego, the stakeholders will meet for their third and final round of deliberations. Hoping to offset the stalemates of round two, facilitators are planning on reorganizing the 64 stakeholders into three new small groups, putting the hardcore environmentalists in one room, the stubborn fishermen in another, and those most likely to compromise in the third room. Out of this rearranged grouping, the facilitators hope a proposal that meets the scientific requirements for preservation without crushing the future of California fishing can emerge by a scheduled September 2 stakeholder meeting.
But with battle lines as entrenched as ever, no one appears too hopeful for an across-the-board agreeable outcome. And with estimates now topping more than $40 million a year to enforce the MPAs and carry out the crucial monitoring efforts to make sure they’re working, there are no guarantees that the ambitious program will ever become a reality without additional and substantial private funding.
Perhaps Mike Sheehy, the marine conservation coordinator for Santa Barbara Channelkeeper and the chief architect of its controversial proposal, put it best when he said recently, “If done right, I have no doubt this will have a long-term benefit for both the environment and for fishing interests. All we have to do is get to 20 years from now.”