Monday, October 12, 2009

REGION: Panel finishes work on ocean reserves

Fishermen, conservationists spar over Swami's, La Jolla

By Dave Downey, North County Times
October 10, 2009

It has taken a decade to get to this point, but the goal of a landmark 1999 state law ---- to create a robust system of protected areas of ocean along the 1,100-mile California coast that preserve the marine environment and boost declining populations of fish ---- is within reach.

Lester Roy, a deckhand on the Oceanside 95 charter boat owned by Helgren's Sportfishing, prepares fishing poles for clients before the boat leaves Oceanside Harbor earlier this year. (Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle - Staff Photographer)

State officials recently drew boundaries for protected areas in Northern and Central California. And the state Fish and Game Commission is expected to adopt, by next summer or fall, a Southern California network of what are essentially wilderness areas over water.

The commission has been waiting on a giant stakeholder group, which has been developing and refining proposals over the last year. That 64-member South Coast Regional Stakeholder Group is comprised of environmentalists, fishermen, divers, politicians, scientists and others.

The group divided into three smaller committees, and each has come up with a proposal that could serve as a model for the eventual Southern California ocean wilderness system.

Anglers, divers and politicians are fretting over just how sweeping the network will wind up being for the region stretching from Santa Barbara to the U.S.-Mexico border. It could have a huge impact on fishing and other extractive activities, including projects that pump sand onto thinning beaches.

At the same time, conservationists and scientists are worried that compromises aimed at insulating the coastal economy could dilute the ocean protection strategy and leave marine animals vulnerable to overfishing.

The network likely will have two types of protected areas: marine reserves, which ban all fishing and extractive activities, and marine conservation areas that allow some activities but place limits on them

For its part, the stakeholder group's work in crafting protected areas is done. Its three committees are scheduled to formally deliver their proposals to a state task force in Long Beach on Oct. 20-22.

The task force, in turn, is set to pick a preferred option, and to forward that and at least one other alternative ---- and probably all three proposals ---- to the Fish and Game Commission.

The task force is scheduled to take public comment on the three final proposals on Oct. 21 from 1:30 to 4:30 p.m., and then again at 7 p.m.

"We need a lot of bodies in Long Beach at that meeting to express their opinion because this is it," said "Big" Joe Exline, secretary for the Oceanside Anglers Club.

The state set guidelines for making comments at the upcoming pivotal meeting. The guidelines are available at

Not from a bureaucrat

This month's meeting will mark a milestone in the development of a system of reserves and conservation areas.

But getting to that milestone wasn't easy.

"It was challenging, to say the least," said Melissa Miller-Henson, Marine Life Protection Act Initiative program manager for the state.

At times, debate grew heated and some group members had to step outside to cool off before continuing to participate in discussions, she said. But members didn't give up on the process.

The effort was launched after the Marine Life Protection Act passed in 1999 directed the state to take its existing hodgepodge collection of protected reserves and conservation areas and assemble a larger, comprehensive and coordinated network up and down the coast.

The act, which marked its 10th anniversary Saturday, initially gave birth to an exceptionally bumpy process early this decade.

Responding to the law's mandate, scientists gathered privately to draft a plan and unveiled it at a public meeting in 2001. Amid an outcry from fishermen and others, the effort collapsed.

So state officials had to regroup.

Several years later, the state launched another, better-funded campaign to overhaul the reserve system and decided to involve fishermen and other ocean users at the front end.

"Unlike that first effort, which really was bureaucrats working with scientists behind closed doors and then releasing a document for public view, this is a proposal that is really coming from the stakeholders," Miller-Henson said. "They're not coming from the scientists, and they're not coming from some bureaucrat in Sacramento."

Three proposals

What's coming from the stakeholder committees are three clear choices for the Fish and Game Commission.

Proposal No. 1 was drafted by a panel balanced with representation from the various competing special interests. Because it is sort of a middle-ground plan, it may be closest to what eventually will be adopted.

Proposal No. 2 was developed by a panel composed mostly of fishermen, and tends to reflect their industry's wishes that reserves be kept to a minimum and not fence off the best fishing holes.

Proposal No. 3 was the product of a panel dominated by conservationists and tends to reflect the desires of the environmental community. It would create a substantial number of reserves that bar fishing.

"A lot of hard work was put into all three maps," said Kate Hanley, marine conservation director for San Diego Coastkeeper, and a stakeholder group member. "However, I'm backing the conservation plan. I feel that it has the most integrity in terms of protecting the most habitat."

Not surprisingly, Exline, the Oceanside fisherman, is backing Proposal No. 2.

"It captures all of the habitat requirements of the act while minimizing economic impacts to the communities," Exline said.

In San Diego County, the key points of contention between conservationists and fishermen center around the kelp beds off Swami's Beach in Encinitas and the rich waters off La Jolla.

The state is aiming to save all types of underwater habitat. And the kelp forests are of particular interest because, while they are in reasonably good in shape off San Diego County, they are in poor condition elsewhere.

For example, one has to go 75 miles north of Encinitas to find the next stable kelp forest, off Palos Verdes Peninsula in Los Angeles County.

But Exline said putting a reserve or conservation area off Encinitas would harm commercial lobster fishermen and needlessly restrict recreational fishing for species such as sheephead, halibut and yellowtail.

"They are impacting ... the businesses and communities that depend on those areas for recreation and for their livelihood," he said.

The redwoods of the sea

To avoid fencing off the Encinitas kelp beds, fishermen, figuring something will have to be preserved in that area, have proposed creating a reserve a little farther south, off Del Mar, that would have a smaller impact on the North San Diego County economy.

But that plan isn't exactly attracting broad support.

Del Mar officials oppose a reserve there because it could block dredging sand from the ocean bottom and pumping it onto thinning beaches.

Conservationists don't want a reserve there, either.

"It's basically where we mine for sand in San Diego County, which tells you a lot about the habitat," Hanley said, noting that its quality is marginal compared with Swami's and La Jolla.

La Jolla has become one of the most contentious battlegrounds in the campaign to map new reserves.

"It's absent from the fishermen's proposal," Hanley said. "It's in the middle-ground proposal, although it's kind of small."

But she said conservationists believe that a significant portion of the biologically rich waters off La Jolla must be preserved.

"It's the largest and most biodiverse (marine habitat) in Southern California," Hanley said. "And its lush kelp beds are sort of the lush redwoods of the sea."

But it's also the most productive fishing area off San Diego County, Exline said, noting that it would be an economic disaster if much of La Jolla were padlocked.

To view the three proposals, visit

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