Friday, August 14, 2009

Sea change

California Fish and Game Commission approves controversial marine reserve; peripheral canal plan proceeds behind closed doors

By Dan Bacher in the Sacramento News & Review

Barbara Lewallen-Stephens harvests the tips of sea palms in Sea Lion Cove. The Marine Life Protection Act bans seaweed harvesters, fishermen and abalone divers from this and other areas along the Mendocino County coast.

Last week, the California Fish and Game Commission voted 3-2 to create a controversial network of 24 marine-protected areas, stretching from the waters near Half Moon Bay to Point Arena in Mendocino County, that will close or restrict approximately 20 percent of the region’s state waters from fishing and seaweed gathering.

The vote to approve the reserve package developed through the Marine Life Protection Act process took place just one day after Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger appointed a new member of the Fish and Game Commission, Donald Benninghoven. A Republican from Santa Barbara, Benninghoven was the deciding vote for the Integrated Preferred Alternative reserve package pushed by the governor.

Benninghoven replaced the former commission president, Cindy Gustafson. Gustafson suddenly resigned the previous Friday, citing an opinion from the state attorney general that found her post conflicted with her position as the Tahoe City Public Utilities District’s general manager.

Representatives of Washington, D.C., and San Francisco-based environmental nongovernmental organizations, including the League of Conservation Voters and the Natural Resources Defense Council, praised the vote while fishermen, seaweed harvesters and the North Coast-based Ocean Protection Coalition condemned it.

“This landmark decision is a major step towards restoring the health and productivity of our state’s ocean wildlife,” said Warner Chabot, CEO of the California League of Conservation Voters. “The goal is to restore and repopulate underwater life by protecting these essential habitats.”

“For decades, we’ve protected California’s special places on land with state and national parks,” said Karen Garrison, a policy analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Now it’s time to protect the Yosemites of the sea.”

The vote will ban Lester Pinola, the past chairman of the Kashia Band of Pomo Indians of Stewarts Point Rancheria in Sonoma County, and the 600 members of his Pomo Indian tribe from harvesting abalone, seaweed and mussels in the intertidal zone off Stewarts Point as they have done for hundreds of years.

“What you are doing to us is taking the food out of our mouths,” Pinola told the commission. “When the first settlers came to the coast, they didn’t know how to feed themselves. Our people showed them how to eat out of the ocean. In my opinion, this was a big mistake.”

Pinola and recreational anglers, commercial fishermen and grassroots environmentalists showed in force at the meeting to back “2XA,” the alternative that they believe best meets the conservation objectives of the MLPA while incurring the least economic harm to coastal communities. Under this alternative, Pinola and members of his tribe could continue harvesting abalone and seaweed.

Fish and Game Commissioners Richard Rogers and Michael Sutton, the latter of who is being investigated by the California Fair Political Practices Commission for potential conflicts of interest in regard to his past votes on the MLPA, lauded the decision as the outcome of a transparent public process.

“What we have before us today is the result of a complicated, open, historic process,” said Rogers before the vote. “I’ve seen processes before that were real railroad jobs, and this isn’t one. It is the single most best process in my life that I’ve been involved with.”

Pinola disagreed with Rogers’ contention. “They never contacted us to let us know they were planning to close the coast to fishing and seaweed harvesting, even though we were the first people on the coast,” he stated.

Commissioners Jim Kellogg and Daniel Richards voted to adopt 2XA and to delay the process because there’s no funding to patrol the new reserves, but the other three commissioners voted “no” on both motions. Jerry Karnow from the California Fish and Game Wardens Association also asked the commission to delay the implementation of the MLPA initiative “until there is some relief from furloughs and enough officers to enforce these significant new provisions.”

Proponents and opponents of the marine reserve plan also clashed over the science behind the decision. Chabot said the decision was the result of a “science-based, compromise plan” approved by the commission. “Hundreds of science studies from around the world prove that marine reserves allow fish and wildlife to grow larger, more abundant and healthier,” he stated.

Jim Martin, West Coast director of the Recreational Fishing Alliance, countered Chabot’s contention that the decision was “science-based,” pointing to a landmark study published in Science magazine on July 31 that found that the California Current marine ecosystem has the lowest fishery exploitation rate of in the world.

Martin argued that the study, coauthored by Ray Hilborn and 20 other international scientists, effectively challenges the need to rush the MLPA process. “Much of the motivation for the MLPA was concern about the state of the groundfish stocks—there is clear evidence that these can be rebuilt without MLPAs,” Hilborn noted, citing the new study.

John Lewallen, one of the founders of the Ocean Protection Coalition as well as the “Seaweed Rebellion” on California’s North Coast, also strongly contested the decision. The new marine-reserve package will bar Lewallen and his wife, Barbara Stephens-Lewallen, from Sea Lion Cove near Point Arena where they have sustainably harvested sea palms and other seaweed for 25 years.

“I’m really stunned that our democracy would be trashed like it was by the commission,” he said. “Californians have to oppose today’s decision and the MLPA process, or our coast will be taken over by private-money interests.”

Lewallen and fishermen have criticized the MLPA Initiative, a public process, for being funded by the Resource Legacy Fund Foundation, a private nonprofit corporation that receives its money from the David and Lucille Packard and the Gordon and Betty Moore foundations.

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