Controversial plans for creating new marine protected areas along the Southern California coast are nearing a conclusion, and will impact Laguna Beach residents, tourists, fishermen and other ocean-users by the end of the year.
One of the three final proposals making its way towards state regulators includes designating Laguna Beach's entire coastline a marine reserve, the highest level of protection. The City Council endorsed such a designation in June, stirring a tsunami of protest from a town with a long history of lobster-harvesting and spear-fishing.
A marine reserve would ban commercial and recreational fishing, as well as taking anything from the coastline or waters. All three proposals afford the entire coast of Laguna with some level of legal protection and each would significantly expand the existing marine reserve at Heisler Park, though in different ways.
Now, after numerous revisions, begins the homestretch of the public comment period as the three proposals are available for review in their final form at marinemap.org, and can be commented on via the Marine Life Protection Act website.
An advisory team of scientists will review the three proposals again Oct. 6, before they are submitted to an oversight panel Oct. 20-22. Public comment is welcome at both meetings and will be considered in policy makers' deliberations.
The three proposals are the result of a tenuous collaboration since last November by a group of 64 representatives of various ocean-related constituents, who initially drafted six proposals for the marine protected areas covering not just Laguna Beach, but the California coast from Point Conception to Mexico. The city's marine protection officer, Calla Allison, was among the participants.
Rodger Healy, president of the Dana Cove Fisherman's Association, said the process was nerve-wracking to watch. "I'm watching them discuss it, going, 'If they move it there, I just lost 60% of my income, if they move it there, I just lost 45%'."
Each of the six draft proposals reviewed by a science advisory team were deemed to fall short of at least one, sometimes several of the scientific guidelines, at a June 18 review session. The science team is comprised of 20 field-leading experts in marine ecology, fisheries, environmental health, oceanography, water quality and other areas.
In accordance with MLPA procedure, the plans were subsequently narrowed to three final proposals.
"Everybody knows this is basically our last shot at it. We have to get it right this time," said Ray Hiemstra, associate director of Orange County Coastkeeper, and a member of the stakeholder group.
Workgroup one put forward a proposal that would establish much of Laguna's coast as a marine reserve, from Crystal Cove south to Aliso Creek. The rest of Laguna's coast would be a conservation area, a lower degree of protection, extending one mile off shore.
Workgroup two's plan expands the Heisler marine reserve north to Crescent Bay and south to Cress Street and roughly five and a half miles seaward in a rectangle extending due south. Areas outside the reserve would be a conservation area, where fishing would be permitted.
Workgroup three proposed the whole coast of Laguna Beach as a marine reserve, extending seaward in a rough triangle 3.5 miles out. Allison, Laguna's marine protection officer, was a member of this group.
"There is no clear front runner," she said. "They may go with a middle-ground compromise map or they might end up taking bits and pieces and making a map of their own. No one really knows."
The oversight panel will designate a preferred plan, which may be any one of the proposals or an amalgamation of the three, before submitting it to the state Department of Fish and Game, which holds the regulatory authority establishing and enforcing marine protected areas. The department intends to ratify a final plan by Dec. 20.
Joel Greenburg, chairman of the Recreational Fishing Alliance, Southern California Chapter, and member of workgroup two, doubts an amalgamation will emerge as the leading plan. "The task force members have expressed a desire not to do that. They would rather…give one of them their stamp of approval as the preferred alternative."