Fishing industry opposes Calif. marine havens

Aquatic preserves' limits on harvesting will hurt area businesses, critics say

May 13, 2007|By Michael Martinez | Michael Martinez,Chicago Tribune

MORRO BAY, Calif. -- Beyond the scenic shore here dotted by an ancient volcano's peak, California has created the first-of-its-kind network of marine havens along its 1,100-mile coast, which officials liken to Teddy Roosevelt's creation of national parks, except these "parks" are at sea.

Many of the first 29 preserves midway between Los Angeles and San Francisco aspire to return the sea to paradise conditions, the way it was before modern California became the world's eighth-largest economy.

The aquatic havens ban or restrict fishing and any other harvesting, which has drawn a storm of protest from fishermen, seafood restaurateurs and local officials who say the rules will hurt businesses and town treasuries.

No one challenges, though, that the habitats here are worthy of Jacques Cousteau: muddy seafloors, deep marine canyons, near-shore rocky reefs and estuarine eelgrass beds. Inhabitants include coho salmon, steelhead trout, sea otters, sea lions, seals, Dungeness crab, squid, gray whales and brown pelicans.

While not as readily accessible as landlocked counterparts, the marine preserves, initiated last month after bureaucratic and financial delays, will offer scientists and tourists a view of submerged or waterborne life reputed to be among the most diverse and productive in the world.

The notion of such marine protected areas "really hasn't been done on the scale of California's, and it really hasn't been done from this idea of a cohesive network," said John Ugoretz, environmental program manager with the state's Department of Fish and Game.

"I'd say the only place where you could compare this with is the Great Barrier Reefs in Australia, where they have a big system of marine-protected areas," he added.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has said that the new zones make his state "a national leader in ocean management."

But in fishing communities like Morro Bay, population 10,000, the new state restrictions could put many fisheries out of business, said Mayor Janice Peters. Under increasing federal and state regulations, the town's annual sales tax receipts from fishing have declined to $3 million from $10 million several years ago, Peters said.

This month, as the sun set over Morro Rock, the old volcano capstone, Peters dined on a salad topped with fresh, grilled salmon, caught by a Morro Bay fisherman. But she wondered how long the restaurant would be able to serve a fresh catch from local watermen under the new regulations, enforcement of which begins this summer.

"These scientists who say the oceans are in crisis - which I don't agree with - don't think about it: The fishermen have become the endangered species," she said. "Fishing, I think, is the oldest profession - to heck with the other one."

Critics are challenging state officials over whether the West Coast waters are in distress. In fact, they say the heavily regulated Pacific fisheries are in much better shape than the East Coast's, which California officials don't dispute. Still, state officials say the new zones are an attempt to see the real potential of the sea once man's influence is eliminated or curtailed.

Marine protected areas are found across the world, but California's plan is considered noteworthy because of the state's vast coastline and its proximity to major population centers that heavily use the ocean, state officials said.

Aided by private foundation funding, California officials set up their first reserves on the central coast last month.

Not all of the waters are protected. Along the central coast segment, 29 distinct areas representing 200 square miles are protected in some way, representing 18 percent of the central coast's surface, up to three miles from shore, said Steve Martarano, state fish and game spokesman. There are three categories of protection - no-take areas in which no fishing or other extractive activities are allowed; areas that allow recreational takes but no commercial fishing; and areas that allow limited recreational or commercial fishing or both.

Scientists and researchers will use manned and unmanned submersible vehicles, and almost all of the preserves will be navigable for boaters, kayakers, surfers, divers and ecotourists, officials said.

Still, a recent survey commissioned by the Alliance of Communities for Sustainable Fisheries showed that two-thirds of Californians disagree that fishing harms the ocean, and most supported family-run fishing operations.

Jeremiah O'Brien, 59, a fisherman in Morro Bay for 27 years, cited one study by faculty from California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo that says near-shore rockfish - a popular catch among recreational anglers - haven't shown any declines on the state's south central coast since 1980.

Vern Goehring, manager for the California Fisheries Coalition, said the new regulations fail to address developers and others whose businesses indirectly contaminate the ocean.

"Regulating fishing is just easier than taking on the commercial polluters," he said.

State officials say the closures are meant to re-establish and study untouched breeding grounds.

"You'll hear people say, `Gee, 80 percent of the federally managed species are not overfished.' That's a true statement, but at the same time, the vast majority [of other species] are completely unassessed," said Ugoretz of the Department of Fish and Game.

"From the fisherman's perspective," he added, "he's absolutely correct. He's getting hit ... with regulations, and his fisheries are well managed. But again, the Marine Life Protection Act isn't just about fisheries. It's about protecting, restoring and enhancing habitats and environments for the long-term sustainability."

Michael Martinez writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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