Is California saving fish or picking on fishermen?

Its plan to prevent overharvesting, slated to go into effect in March, mobilizes irked anglers who say they've already cut back.

A classic storm of environmental, commercial, and political proportions is brewing off the central coast of California.

Seven years after the state made world headlines with landmark environmental legislation to create a mosaic of no-fishing zones along its coast, the first step in a giant master plan is poised for launch. And the opposition is digging in.

Approved unanimously by the California Fish and Game Commission in August, 29 marine protected areas are slated to go into effect in March. The network of refuges – banning or restricting fishing – will stretch across 200 square miles from Santa Barbara to Half Moon Bay, just south of San Francisco. A second and third set of networks could follow, stretching from Mexico to the Washington border.

Passed in 1999 by a 2-to-1 margin in the state legislature, the Marine Life Protection Act was considered by global scientists to be a model for managing the world's overstretched fisheries. But implementation stalled after years of opposition and budget shortfalls. Now, public pressure, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's administration, and public-private funding have combined to put the plan back on track.

The push for conservation jump-started with recently published reports, like the one in this month's issue of the journal Science that warns that nearly one-third of the world's fished species have collapsed (declined by more than 90 percent) – a fate that will befall all of the world's seafood species by 2048 if current fishing and pollution trends continue.

But critics – chiefly from the fishing and tourism industries – say the marine protection plan will decimate coastal economies – depriving fishermen of their livelihoods, restaurants of their fresh-fish menus, and sport-fish enterprises of their clientele. More important, they say, the science that has gone into the state's conclusions is faulty, that current regulations have already halted overfishing, and that the state has overlooked other forces on marine populations – such as climate, coastal development, and urban runoff.

"The only thing that has come out of this long process is additional regulations on fishing," says Vern Goehring, manager of the California Fisheries Coalition, which represents fishing associations and seafood processors.

The final parameters of the plan hinge on additional input, including outstanding environmental studies still in progress. With only a handful of public hearings left before the state rolls out Phase 1, dissent is growing louder.

"If we try to conserve the marine environment simply by stopping fishing, we will fail," says Mr. Goehring. "We think they are rushing in to establish these zones to appear to be doing something for the environment ... but they don't want to take on other powerful interests, so they attack the simplest one: fishermen."

While fishing rates may be rising globally, California anglers argue that local marine populations are not in the same dire straits. "For 10 years, California fishermen have already severely cut back their quotas," says Steve Scheiblauer, harbor master for the city of Monterey. "Recent science reflects that fish have rebounded, and overfishing is not occurring here."

Fish and Game officials recognize the concerns of the fishing industry, but John Ugoretz, a biologist with the department, says the scientific community and the public back the current marine plan.

"There are differing views on this, but the vast majority of scientists worldwide think [protected areas] can help increase biodiversity, make fisheries more sustainable, and benefit the environment," he says.

Moreover, California's plan protects just 18 percent of the central coast waters, leaving 82 percent open to fishing and other activities – a clear sign that state officials hear the concerns of fishermen loud and clear, says Kaitilin Gaffney, the Ocean Conservancy's Ecosystems Program Manager for California's Central Coast.

"This is definitely a compromise, not an environmentalist's wish list," she says. "We tried to take into account the effect on fishing [and] also the dictates of science."

Some outside observers have expressed concern that the scientists selected to map out a protected plan were picked for their environmental views – not their scientific expertise.

"One of the premises of this has been precipitated by the Chicken Little notion that California has been overfished, but that is not true," says Ray Hilborn, professor of fisheries management at the University of Washington's School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences.

"In fisheries management, California is already one of the best in the world," he says. "This is not about fish yields or fisheries management but protecting areas because people like them protected. The science teams used in this were loaded with marine ecologists who have an agenda to really set up private reserves for study."

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