Zone 1 in place for California's no-fishing plan

It is trying to protect its world-famous bounty of fish with marine protected areas.

Fishermen in small towns along the central coast fear they will no longer be able to supply local restaurants with respectable "catches of the day."

Waterfront boating operators say scenic tours and sport fishing could become too expensive or go extinct. And some local officials say the "quaint fishing village" look could fade into yesteryear, replaced by communities of modern condos.

But leading environmental groups say the new plan is the only way to sustain California's marine resources and world-famous bounty of rockfish, squid, tuna, jack mackerel, and hake.

Eight years after California made world headlines with landmark legislation to create a mosaic of no-fishing zones along its coast, the first step of its giant master plan kicked in last Friday. The state will ban or severely restrict fishing in more than 200 square miles of ocean off the central coast from San Luis Obispo to Monterey.

"This is the first big step in helping California ensure that it will have sustainable marine resources into the future," says John Ugoretz, habitat and conservation program manager for the California Department of Fish and Game. "While some people feel we are taking away their freedom and don't like the idea … we think that is a short-term sacrifice and that this is a must if our children and grandchildren want to have a healthy environment and a place to fish."

Long pushed by state environmentalists who have wanted to protect the ecosystem off the California coast – including undersea plants, waterfowl, seals, and birds – the preservation issue really caught fire in December 2006, when widespread reports came out that one-third of the world's fish species have declined by more than 90 percent. But there has also been disagreement over key issues – including precisely where the zones should be and what fish need to be protected or exempted – and animosity has arisen over which groups of stakeholders are making the most sacrifices.

"We keep hearing from the environmentalists that everyone has to compromise a little to make this all work, but we [fishermen] seem to be the only ones who make sacrifices," says Vern Goehring, manager of the California Fisheries Coalition, which represents fishing associations and seafood processors.

First zone of five

Made up of marine protected areas (MPAs), the newly designated zone off the central coast is the first of five that will eventually line the entire 1,100-mile coastline of California. It is mandated by the Marine Life Protection Act, which passed by a 2-to-1 margin in the state Legislature in 1999.

The state Fish and Game Commission approved this first region in April after years of negotiations with coastal residents, fishermen, scientists, and environmentalists. Similar rounds of discussions are now under way concerning the next zone, which will cover state waters extending three miles from the shore and from San Mateo County to Mendocino County.

One continued point of contention is over the quality of science that has gone into decisionmaking. While there seems to be agreement over the depletion of fish stocks worldwide, many say that California, by virtue of better past management of its coastal waters by federal regulations, is largely exempt from those depletions.

"There is a popular perception that much of the world has been overfished, and that is certainly true elsewhere, but absolutely not true in California," says Ray Hilborn, professor of fisheries management at the University of Washington's School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences. Hilborn has analyzed statistical models of 50 fish listed as in collapse worldwide, but he says only two from the list are seriously depleted in California.

Other fishermen here say the original statistics causing most of the alarm – published in the journal Science in December 2006 – have been challenged by other studies.

"There have been other studies since then that say the [Science] numbers were flawed, but everyone keeps quoting the initial statistics anyway," says Ken Jones, president of United Pier and Shore Anglers of California.

Mr. Jones, Mr. Goehring, and other fishermen acknowledge that in the past, some commercial operations overfished some key stocks such as rockfish, but that they have mended their ways out of necessity. In fact, some of the best advocates for the new zones were fishermen themselves, says Kaitilin Gaffney, program manager for the Ocean Conservancy.

Still, many hope the state will look beyond fishermen to other reasons why fish populations decline: climate, coastal development, and urban runoff.

Lack of funding

As for the decisionmaking process itself, some observers say that part of the problem has been lack of funding.

"From the outset of this whole idea, the state Fish and Game Department didn't have any money, so all the studies were underwritten by private foundations funded by environmental organizations," says Craig Merrilees, a recreational fisherman in San Francisco who is part of the team negotiating details of the state's second MPA, which is slated to open in the next two years.

In addition, all sides acknowledge that no matter how regulations evolve, enforcement will be a problem because of the lack of funding. "The state Department of Fish and Game is woefully unable to enforce existing regulations," says Mr. Merrilees. "I literally fished for several years without ever even seeing a single Fish and Game official."

That doesn't matter to Darby Neil, who runs a sport-fishing landing in Morro Bay. As of Friday, he says, he can no longer offer clients his long-range, rock-cod trip because the borders of the new MPA would force his tour boats an hour north to White Rocks. That would take six hours, leave no time to fish, and cost a fortune in fuel.

"I guess we'll hammer the reefs in front of Morro Bay until the reserves are the only place left with any fish," says Mr. Neil. "Then we'll get told how well MPAs work."

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