Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Ventura County Star: Some marine sites could be shut; input sought

The battle over the high seas is coming to Oxnard on Wednesday.

An open house will be held Wednesday to provide information on the establishment of marine protected areas off the South Coast. Six maps will be on display detailing spots that would be partially or completely closed to fishermen in the coming years, with the hope that the closure would help build fish populations.

What the gathering won’t show is how heated the arguments have been between conservation groups and a coalition of fishermen who are trying to keep the areas open for fishing.

“There was a lot of pain expressed on both sides,” Joel Greenberg, chairman of the Southern California chapter of the Recreational Fishing Alliance, said of the process that led to the creation of the maps. “There are two different opinions that are not easy to reconcile.”

Greg Helms, program manager for the Ocean Conservancy’s Santa Barbara chapter, agreed. “Some days it’s pretty rough,” he said.

The stakes on both sides couldn’t be higher. While the fisherman say they are fighting for their livelihood, the conservationists say the health of Southern California’s ocean depends on the outcome of the process.

The marine protected areas were established under the Marine Life Protection Act. The state mandated a series of areas be set aside to help fish populations rebound by limiting or banning consumptive uses in the areas.

Northern and Central California have finished the process. Southern California, which has more fishermen and more people with a vested interest in the ocean, is the last and most fought over. The Regional Stakeholder Group, which represents varying interests, has spent months winnowing down the marine protected area options in Southern California.

Of the six maps that remain, the group will select three or four they will pass on to the Blue Ribbon Task Force committee.

In October, that group will recommend one map to the California State Fish and Game Commission, which will then decide the one to enact. It will likely be at least a year before they are put into place.

There is still a long way to go and many arguments to be made.

“They are talking about closing down a lot of area,” said Chris Hoeflinger, a spokesman for the Ventura County Commercial Fishermen’s Association, who has been fishing for 19 years. “The conservationists have everything to gain and nothing to lose and the fishermen are going to lose their grounds forever.”

He and other fishermen point to a recent study about a series of marine reserves established off the Channel Islands five years ago. He said the results didn’t show any discernible change in terms of the amount of fish out there, but it did show that fish inside the reserves were bigger.

“But that doesn’t translate into more sustainable fisheries,” he said.

To illustrate just how divided the two camps are on the issue, conservationists use those same studies to show how new reserves will help increase fish populations and help the fishermen that depend on them.

“MPAs (marine protection areas) are going to lead to more and better fish because of the protection of an intact ecosystem,” said Helms, citing the Channel Islands study. “There are always going to be people who hear science they disagree with and say ‘That is not proof.’”

Helms and others complained the fishing community is overrepresented in the Regional Stakeholder Group and that too much deference is being given to their desires.

“If you look at the makeup of the Stakeholder Group, it’s not a true representation of Southern California,” said Sarah Sikich, Coastal Resources director with Heal the Bay.

But the fishermen argue they should have a larger say because their jobs are potentially on the line.

In all of the proposed maps, which cover the area from Point Conception to Mexico, Ventura County had relatively few protected areas. That is in part because the network of existing reserves on the northern Channel Islands is thought to help provide enough habitat and shelter for fish.

But the coast off Ventura is also mainly sandy bottom, and one of the goals of the reserves is to set aside many different types of habitat — deep submarine canyons, rocky reefs and kelp forests. The waters off San Diego, which have many kinds of habitat and are also popular with fishermen, are among the most hotly contested.

The area in Ventura County south of Point Mugu to the Los Angeles County line is being fought over as both a good fishing area and place where more protection is needed.

Sikich said as hard as the work is and as long as the debates are, it’s worth it. California is the first state to enact such a vast network of reserves, so there is pressure to do it right, appeasing both the conservationists and the fishermen. Other states could follow the state’s example.

“I think people are looking to us to do a good job,” she said.

If you go

What: The California Department of Fish and Game is hosting an open house to view maps of proposed marine protected areas off Southern California. Those attending the free event will be able to make comments and ask questions.

When: 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. Wednesday

Where: Residence Inn, 2101 W. Vineyard Ave., Oxnard

Information: http://www.dfg.ca.gov/mlpa

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