Friday, December 11, 2009

Enlarged marine sanctuaries lack funding for enforcement

Fish and Game at a loss for monitoring new areas

By Mike Lee, San Diego Union-Tribune
December 9, 2009

The millions of dollars spent on a decade-long effort to create or enlarge coastal sanctuaries could fail to enhance protection for marine life because the state lacks funding to enforce or manage the project.

In the face of California’s $20 billion budget deficit, it’s unclear how the Department of Fish and Game will pay for programs to educate the public about marine protected areas, where seafood harvesting is banned or restricted; for more wardens to catch poachers; and for long-term studies on whether expanding the zones results in better conservation.

The department’s wardens said they don’t have the resources to patrol more marine protected areas along California’s 1,100-mile coastline, including new or enlarged sites off Encinitas, Imperial Beach, La Jolla and Point Loma.

“We can’t keep people out of them, so what good is the science if you can’t be assured that those areas are completely protected?” said Todd Tognazzini, president of the California Fish and Game Wardens Association, which advocates for wildlife agents.

The Legislature mandated remapping of marine protected areas in 1999, but that effort has taken years to develop partly because of the state’s financial problems. In regions that have been revamped for the new network, the zones are from two to six times their former size.

Managing the whole system is projected to cost an average of $24 million a year, although it could top $42 million, Fish and Game officials said. In contrast, the agency’s current annual budget for planning and implementing the network is $4.4 million.

The shortfall is best exemplified by game wardens, whose ranks remain about the same as 30 years ago even though the state’s population has risen more than 60 percent. California’s budget cuts in recent years have worsened the staffing problem by forcing wardens to take furloughs that roughly amount to a 14 percent reduction in force.

The state’s wildlife enforcement chief, Nancy Foley at the Department of Fish and Game, acknowledged that California has the lowest ratio of wardens to residents in the nation — one warden to about 175,000 residents. California has about 220 game wardens. Florida, with half of California’s population, has three times as many wildlife enforcement officers.

California doesn’t record how many citations are issued in marine protected areas, but more than two-thirds of the violations reported by Fish and Game wardens since at least 2005 involved illegal sportfishing.

Foley said more and bigger marine protected areas would add to her wardens’ workload.

“We see that it’s going to present some significant challenges,” she said. “We will certainly provide the level of enforcement that we have available to us.”

Some supporters of the Marine Life Protection Act of 1999 minimize the financial uncertainties; they said the new zones will succeed with contributions from residents, nonprofit groups and government leaders.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has made ocean recovery a top priority, and foundations have poured millions of dollars into the remapping. That partnership provides hope for good management of the marine zones despite the state’s budget crisis, said Kate Hanley, a marine expert for the environmental group San Diego Coastkeeper.

“Solutions emerge, especially with something as important as this,” Hanley said.

Hanley expects fishermen, divers, kayakers and others who frequent the coast to report problems such as rogue anglers when game wardens aren’t around.

“We’ll have a lot of eyes and ears on the water who will certainly take offense to anyone violating the laws,” she said.

Tognazzini said such help is of little value when California doesn’t have enough wildlife agents to investigate complaints and write citations that will hold up in court.

He said enforcement is complicated by the lack of adequate public notices about where protected areas begin and end.

“They are well-defined in the law, but I am unaware of signs on the shore or signs on the ocean,” Tognazzini said, adding that it is a fisherman’s duty to know the map coordinates of protected areas.

Anglers such as Bob Fletcher of San Diego expect poachers to take advantage of spotty law enforcement.

“It is a central issue, and it raises what I consider a fatal flaw in this whole process,” Fletcher said. “If there isn’t the kind of protection to allow the development of a more abundant and complex ecosystem, then you have done nothing but penalize honest fishermen.”

The management-resources issue has been overshadowed by interest groups sparring over how much to enlarge marine protected areas. Fishermen often want to maintain full access to spots that conservationists aim to make off-limits.

State-sponsored panels have held meeting after meeting, including a high-profile one today in Los Angeles, to refine the expansion strategy for each region — from San Diego to Del Norte counties. They painstakingly try to balance the views of fishermen, environmentalists, scientists, recreationalists and others.

Southern California is the third of five sections to be remapped. At today’s meeting, the state Fish and Game Commission will review expansion proposals for that region and set a course for rendering a final decision next year.

The statewide system is supposed to be in place by 2012, a feat that probably wouldn’t be possible without private donors.

In 2004, the Resources Legacy Fund Foundation stepped up with money to jump-start the remapping process, which had been stalled by California’s financial shortfalls. To date, the foundation has pledged more than $20 million for redesigning the protected areas and nearly $3 million to develop a scientific monitoring program for them.

More recently, the state’s Ocean Protection Council set aside $12 million for baseline ecological analysis of the network over the next few years.

It’s uncertain whether donations will continue to flow and how much money the Legislature and governor can afford to spend amid budget downsizing.

Susan Golding, a former San Diego mayor who now serves on the Ocean Protection Council board, is concerned about California’s weak enforcement capability and the possibility that it won’t pay for research needed to guide management of marine protected areas.

“Without good, strong monitoring, all of these efforts will be in vain,” Golding said. “With good, strong monitoring based on science and enough money to do it right, it will be a historic effort because we will actually know whether the decisions made were the right ones.”

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