By Melissa Pamer, Torrance Daily Breeze
A state panel postponed a decision on whether areas of the Palos Verdes Peninsula may be closed to fishing under the Marine Life Protection Act in an effort to protect ocean habitat. The proposal has angered local fisherman, especially in the waters near Rocky Point, pictured, in Palos Verdes Estates. (Steve McCrank/Staff Photographer)A state panel overseeing a landmark initiative to create a network of ocean preserves has postponed a decision on the controversial closure of fishing grounds along the Southern California coastline, including a popular area off the Palos Verdes Peninsula.
At a meeting Thursday in Long Beach, the panel parsed three proposals and drew up a draft of its own plan that indicated support for keeping open Rocky Point, an area off the western face of the Peninsula that is treasured by fishermen and environmentalists who have battled for control of its prime habitat and fishing grounds.
After three days of lengthy hearings, the five-member Blue Ribbon Task Force, which is overseeing the implementation of the Marine Life Protection Act, decided it needed further scientific evaluation before it could choose a "preferred alternative" to recommend.
"One thing we don't want to do is make decisions when we're not prepared to do it," said task force Chairwoman Catherine Reheis-Boyd.
The panel plans to meet in Los Angeles in November to vote on a recommendation to send on to the state Fish and Game Commission, which has final approval over fishing closures associated with the act, known as the MLPA.
The 1999 law is designed to create a series of underwater parks along California's 1,100-mile coast where fishing would be restricted or halted in an effort to protect marine ecosystems and improve fish populations.
During the battle over implementation, environmental groups have advocated for the highest protection of habitats, saying restrictions would ultimately produce a "spillover" effect that would benefit fishing.
Meanwhile, fishermen, many of whom have been skeptical of the need for closures, worry about reduced access and economic impacts.
On Wednesday, black-shirted fishermen protested outside the hearing at the Hilton Hotel, holding signs with messages such as "Save jobs, stop closures." An estimated 1,500 people attended the meeting hoping to express their views.
The Palos Verdes Peninsula has proved to be among the most contentious areas in a region from Point Conception in Santa Barbara County to the Mexican border - the third of five sections of state coastline to be reviewed by the task force. On Thursday, the panel looked specifically at some of the more difficult areas, seeking tradeoffs.
Citing the negative economic impact of more restrictive fishing closures, the task force indicated it supports creating a no-fishing zone of nearly 20 square miles southwest of Point Vicente and south of Long Point. Included in that is an area in Abalone Cove where some take would be allowed. The plan mirrored one backed by fishing groups.
"We all knew this was tough at P.V. We've heard group after group talk about the impacts at Rocky Point," said task force member Gregory Schem.
The head of a real estate group specializing in marina and waterfront properties, Schem suggested the Peninsula might be the one place where economic concerns would force the task force to violate scientific guidelines designating the type of habitats to be preserved, as well as their size and spacing along the coast.
Without creating a marine-protected area on the western face of the Peninsula - the only headland in the Southern California region - the initiative will lose scarce deep rocky reef habitat and persistent kelp forest that is favored by many types of fish.
In exchange for supporting the fishing groups' plans in the Palos Verdes Peninsula area, the panel indicated it may support more extensive protections in Malibu at Point Dume and on Catalina Island.
"This is a huge concession at P.V. It's huge," said Meg Caldwell, a task force member who directs an environmental law program at Stanford University.
Several local fishermen said they were pleased with the direction the task force is leaning, but remained wary of other closures.
"I'm happy they're doing the right thing," said Joe Farlo, a Torrance doctor and spearfisherman who has campaigned to keep Rocky Point open.
Sarah Sikich, coastal resources director at nonprofit advocacy group Heal the Bay and one of 64 regional stakeholders who crafted the three proposals before the task force, said she was waiting for a scientific review.
Sikich had backed a plan calling for closures at Rocky Point.
"It's uncertain what's going to happen. They need to move forward with the evaluation," Sickich said.