By Jim Matthews, San Bernardino Sun
March 6, 2010
The first wave of hard evidence documenting the corruption and conflict of interest that's guided the implementation of the 1999 Marine Life Protection Act surfaced at the meeting of the California Fish and Game Commission at the DoubleTree Inn this past week.
The commission accepted public testimony again on the so-called Blue Ribbon Task Force's recommended ocean fishing closures and protected areas along the Southern California coast before adopting a final plan. During Wednesday's testimony, documentation was provided that proved that two members of the Blue Ribbon Task Force, Bill Anderson and Greg Schem, lied to the commission at a recent meeting about having a business association.
Bob Fletcher, former president of the Sportfishing Association of California who's been involved in the entire MLPA process, said there was evidence that both members agreed "to sign off on everything else" in return for not putting a reserve on the Rocky Point area between Redondo Beach and Long Beach where both had marinas and business interests.
Fletcher and others at the meeting say this is just the tip of the iceberg. Sportfishing groups are gathering evidence on three other issues that have plagued the process.
First, Michael Sutton, a member of the Fish and Game Commission and a key supporter of vast closures, has been charged with conflict of interest and repeatedly asked to recuse himself on all MLPA issues. Sutton works for the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which stands to benefit financially from Department of Fish and Game funding to help implement and monitor protected marine areas.
When a complaint was filed with the state Fair Political Practices Commission last year, however, it wasn't investigated. Sportfishing groups are looking into whether anyone from the governor's office tampered with the issue.
In an incredible case of irony, Sutton is also on the FGC's Marine Resources Subcommittee with commissioner Richard Rogers, and recused himself recently when the issue was collection permits because his employer, the Monterey Bay Aquarium, has a vested interest in the collection permits.
Second, there's growing evidence that former Fish and Game commissioner Cindy Gustafson was asked to resign when she, along with two other commissioners, questioned the science involved in some of the proposed MLPA recommendations.
She was replaced by Don Benninghoven solely because of Benninghoven's support of the most restrictive MLPA designations, giving the closure supporters a 3-2 majority on the commission.
Benninghoven came to the commission after a two-year stint on the Blue Ribbon Task Force.
Third, at least 12 of the members of the MLPA science advisory team are fully or partially financed by grants from the Packard Foundation and Ocean Protection Council, both of which have been outspoken proponents of the MLPA process' most restrictive protections, including vast areas closed to all fishing.
The science advisory committee refused to consider catch-and- release sport angling and sport take restrictions as a management option that was less damaging to the marine environment than unrestricted commercial fishing. A catch-and-release angler fishing barbless jigs for calico bass was the same as a commercial gill net to the majority of the science advisory team.
Sportfishing interests have said the whole public process was a sham after the Blue Ribbon Task Force essentially ignored the proposals from the three volunteer study groups that labored for 18 months before forwarding their own recommendation to the Fish and Game Commission, which was a breach of what the volunteers had been assured at the outset would happen.
The Blue Ribbon Task Force has also refused to take into consideration the state's economy and budget, and how closures will affect business and recreation in the region.
Fletcher said it was likely, with the state's budget crisis, there won't be funding to finance the MLPA. Last year, the legislative budget office stripped all funding of the MLPA implementation out of the Department of Fish and Game's budget, but its funding was continued by the governor's office by backfilling with Proposition 84 funding.
This year, the budget office is again likely to recommend that funding be stopped - and that Proposition 84 funds aren't used again.
"The whole process is rife with conflict of interest," said Fletcher. "It has been hijacked."