Monday, October 19, 2009

Fishers to biologists are engaged in an underwater battle

By Zeke Barlow, Ventura County Star
October 18, 2009

Michael Sheehy pointed into the forest of kelp undulating in the current, his eyes wide behind his diving mask.

He spotted a nearly 2-foot-long sheephead swimming through the maze of brown kelp and golden shafts of light that illuminated the marine reserve off Anacapa Island. The area that has been closed to fishing for six years was thick with giant kelpfish, garibaldi, kelp bass, lobsters and a host of other fish that live along the rocky bottom and the kelp that clings to it.

But the large sheephead, which can produce many more offspring than a younger one, best illuminated why Sheehy wanted to show off why he thinks the reserves like the ones at the Channel Islands are a good idea.

“It tells me this a healthy ecosystem,” said Sheehy, a marine ecologist, as he bobbed on the surface. “I saw more bigger fish and a more diverse collection of species.”

Everyone from fishermen who make their living from the sea to the biologists who study it agree that when you create a series of marine reserves — areas where fishing is banned or limited — there will be more and bigger fish inside them.

But how those closures will affect the ocean around them — and in turn the fishermen, the other fish, the economy and the environment — is being hotly debated.

Now, as a new network of marine protected areas are being established in as much as 17 percent of the coastal waters of Southern California, proponents on both sides are battling over what they say is either the future of the ocean’s health or the future of their livelihood.

“Marine protected areas are a grand concept and something that I subscribe to,” said Terry Maas, a Ventura free-diver who has seen the benefits of the existing marine protected areas — or MPAs — and is working to create the new network. “However, the devil is in the details and we need to be very careful to balance the preservation values of an MPA against the employment of fishermen who depend on the fishery for their jobs.”

A hint at how the new MPAs will look comes on Thursday, when one of the three vastly divergent maps will be selected and proposed to be implemented in coming years.

A history of reserves

MPAs are nothing new to California.

More than 50 were created along the coast in the last century, but there was no master plan of how they should all be connected, so in 1999 the Marine Life Protection Act was passed by the state Legislature.

The goal was to create a network of reserves where fish could not only grow big and expand their populations, but help bolster any populations that have been depleted and allow movement between the reserves. The MPAs were thought of sort of like national parks — areas that have intrinsic value where nature could flourish without the hand of man and recuperate from problems such as pollution and development.

“They are a holistic approach to protecting the marine resources, so instead of fisheries management where you protect a single species, you are protecting a whole ecosystem, you are protecting the food web dynamics and the habitat and everything that goes along with it,” said Sarah Sikich, coastal resources director for Heal the Bay, on a trip to the islands to show off the existing MPAs to reporters.

Lou Ciarimboli, owner of No Respect Diving Charters, said MPAs are like supermarkets in the sea.

“At Vons, you have skim milk, 5 percent, 2 percent — you are just going to find more milk at Vons and a greater selection than you are at a 7-11. And that’s the difference with the MPAs,” he said. “You are shopping at Vons in an MPA to a certain extent.”

And while the law says that MPAs should be used in conjunction with management to create healthy fisheries, it is not explicitly designed to enhance fish populations for the sake of fishermen. It gives equal weight to the rights of fisherman as it does to a scuba diver or a person who just likes seeing dolphins jump along the horizon.

“You and I and all of us together as citizens own this resource and we are not simply trying to allocate this resource to exploitation, we are trying to give benefits to everybody,” said Greg Helms, program manager for the Ocean Conservancy’s Santa Barbara chapter.

Over the last year, more than 60 representatives from vastly different interests have sat for hours upon hours in hotel conference rooms, battling over lines drawn in the ocean, trying to either keep an area open to fishing or to close it. Similar networks have already been created on the Central Coast and more are planned for the rest of the state. The Southern California reserves likely won’t be implemented until 2011.

Many in the conservation community claim that even though an area will be closed to fishing or greatly limited, over the long run the fish inside the reserves will spill over into the areas outside it, creating a healthier fishery. Larvae from some fish inside the reserves can travel up to 100 miles, presumably enhancing the populations outside the reserves. In an area like Southern California, where certain fish such as sheephead are slow growing and can live about 50 years according to a Fish and Game report, those benefits may take decades to see, if they are ever truly measurable.

“We are talking about the potential for a win-win here, “ said Helms. “All ships will rise.”

But it’s a concept fisherman — and some scientists — are skeptical of and wonder why fishermen are feeling the brunt of the closures. They wonder how closing an area to fishing is going to deal with pollution and coastal development — problems outlined in the MLPA — and if they are being singled out because it is the easiest solution.

At what cost?

Jerry Peters couldn’t stop smiling.

The sun was inching up over the horizon, his boat — the Rebecca Lynn — was chugging along the Santa Barbara coast and he was pulling lobsters out of his more than 200 traps strategically placed along the reefs and kelp forests he’s come to know intimately over his 20 years fishing. He passed on a career as a professional drummer for fishing and couldn’t be happier.

“Look at those flappers!” he said, laughing as he pulled up a trap full of spiny lobsters bucking wildly inside the metal cage.

“It’s not just what we do, it’s what we are, it’s a way of life,” said Peters, 42, of Oak View. But he wonders what effect the new reserves will have not only on the fisherman, but lobsters they fish for.

He steered his boat into the waters off Naples, an area near Santa Barbara that could be closed in the new reserves, where a kaleidoscope of bright buoys marking traps dotted the water.

“Guys are going to put their gear somewhere else,” if the area is closed, he said. He thinks that means more fisherman will be fishing in smaller areas, putting a greater strain on the areas that are left open, potentially resulting in a less healthy fishery —the opposite of the reserves’ intentions.

Chris Hoeflinger, a Newbury Park commercial fisherman who fell in love with the sport when he was 5-years-old and fishing to feed his family, agreed.

“It’s the same argument if you had a herd of cows in a pasture and you close 25 percent of the pasture and you expect those cows to live on that smaller area — it’s not going to happen,” he said.

Many fisherman are dubious of the claim their fisheries will be better because of the increased production inside the reserves. Though “fishing the line” near the reserves is popular, fishermen don’t do it because the reserves are pushing out more fish — they do it because the reserves are historically the most productive areas, Peters said.

Though the reserves off the Channel Islands that were established in 2003 have already shown to have more larger fish inside them, because many fish in this area are slow growing, it could be years before they are deemed successful. It may be years more before fishermen reap the benefits.

“The mantra of the MPAs was short-term pain for long-term gain,” said Tim Athens, who has been fishing for squid, halibut and other fish out of Channel Islands Harbor for 30 years. “I’m still feeling the pain and I’m waiting for the gain.”

Matt Kay, a researcher at UC Santa Barbara who has been studying how lobster populations are doing inside the reserves, said that while reserves work brilliantly at protecting the species inside them, he’s not so sure they will help increase the catch outside the reserves.

“I don’t think the reserves are going to increase yield,” he said. “Until we can measure some spillover and reproductive output that is in the fishery, I think we need to be honest with ourselves in giving these things credit as a fisheries management tool.”

But Sheehy, the marine conservation coordinator with the Santa Barbara Channelkeeper, said MPAs have done just that in other parts of the world and thinks it will happen here, too.

Besides, he said, the MPAs are not designed with just fishermen in mind, but for all Californians who equally own the ocean.

“Remember that the purpose of the Marine Life Protection Act is not to improve fisheries in California, it’s to identify that marine resources have many positives for California, some of which have nothing to do with extractive use,” he said. “When you hear people say they are losing something, you are starting from the premise that it was yours to start with.”

Thee very different maps

The three competing maps for the finalized MPAs look strikingly similar at first glance. The map that fisherman are advocating versus what conservationists want is only different by about 32 square miles — about 1.4 percent of the entire Southern California coastal region. The third map is a compromise.

But the difference between the maps is huge, both sides say. Take Point Dume, just south of Ventura County and one of the more intensely fought-over areas, for example.

The map the fishermen are proposing would allow for some types of fishing, such as spearfishing and seining for squid.

Joel Greenberg, chairman of the Southern California chapter of the Recreational Fishing Alliance, said that is hugely important for fishermen who own charter fishing boats, who moonlight in the slow times and fish squid there.

“The area at Point Dume, among others, is important and that importance was overlooked,” he said. “The difference has to do with rather small things and the small adjustments that have the potential to have major negative economic impacts on the coastal economy, not just fishing.”

The reality, fisherman argue, is that the MPAs aren’t just making about 17 percent of the ocean off-limits or greatly restricted — those are the most productive areas of the ocean. Much of what is left is sandy bottom, where fewer fish live. Those areas are also less resilient to the pressures of fishing.

But Sheehy said the Point Dume area, with its mix of rocky reefs, deep canyons, sandy bottom and kelp forests, is exactly the kind of place that needs conserving.

“There is nothing more important than protecting that,” he said. “That is going to drive production that is going to find its way outside of the MPA.”

He said that the map proposed by the fishing interests has the potential to be a failure, not meeting any of criteria that would produce an effective network of MPAs. A Fish and Game analysis of the maps shows the map he is advocating has twice the conservation value — but with an increased economic impact.

In the six years since the reserves were set up at Channel Islands, some fisheries had better years than in the past, some had worse. Some fish such as lingcod showed noticeable change in the size and abundance of their populations, some saw no change.

Six years from now, when the new set of reserves are in place, it will likely be a similarly mixed bag of results, with both sides debating how this new maze of lines in the ocean is affecting them and the environment that is the vast and complex ocean of Southern California.

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