Saving fish with parks in Pacific

As Lt. Chris Graff throttles his 58-foot catamaran, the shiny, aluminum hull rises out of the water on an airplanelike wing and draws bead on a lobster boat bobbing in the waves ahead.

Mr. Graff is one of the state Fish and Game wardens charged with enforcing a dramatic plan to restore collapsing fisheries here.

In California, the concept of "ecosystem management" - protecting species by protecting broad swaths of habitat - has gone aquatic. Instead of just setting quotas on specific fish or closing key areas on a seasonal basis, the state is implementing a system of marine parks, many of which would ban all types of fishing.

The still-evolving plans on America's longest state coastline have enraged many fishermen, but scientists say they could become a model for managing the world's overstretched fisheries.

"[This] is a giant change in the status quo that is being watched closely by other states and other nations as well," says John Ugoretz, a biologist with the state department of Fish and Game.

While the state's plans have stirred controversy, fishermen and scientists alike recognize the scope of the challenge.

Years ago, fleets of boats routinely lurched back into port sagging with loads of sea bass, yellowtail, barracuda, and tuna.

"When I was a small boy, I used to stand on the Newport Pier hauling in Big Bonita fishes, walk along the beach with all kinds of seaweed and shells," says Gary Brown, Coast Keeper for Orange County. "Now all that is gone."

But more recently, recreational divers have complained of depleted reefs, tourists of declines in colorful rockfish, environmentalists of the loss of spawning and other habitat, and residents of the diminished pleasures of pier fishing.

Commercial fishing statistics tell the story. Spurred by recent increases in the markets for live fish used in restaurants and shipped overseas, the harvesting of live fin fish have increased sixty-fold in the past seven years alone: from 20,000 pounds to 1.2 million pounds.

To reverse such declines, recent legislation is intended to embrace equally the concerns of sport fisherman, commercial fisherman, divers, and environmentalists alike.

"Until now, there has been a loose-knit system of laws and protected areas without consistent management or coordination. As a result, marine resources have suffered drastically," says Assemblyman Kevin Shelley, author of one of the measures. "The state has taken on the monumental task of devising a master plan which it has never had to assure an abundance of fish for future generations."

'Offshore national parks'

Although the term "offshore national parks" might be too strong a term, according to some observers, others say it gives the correct impression of what the state is attempting to do.

One measure, called the Marine Life Management Act (MLMA), calls on the state's Department of Fish and Game to set up plans, based on science and public input, to protect targeted species. But like ecosystem management on land, the idea is to adopt broad guidelines that recognize the mutual dependence of species and their habitats.

The measure, adopted in 1998 but only now phasing in, calls for approval of plans targeting white sea bass and nearshore ground fish by the Fish and Game Department by year's end.

In a second measure, called the Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA), a broad mosaic of no-fishing zones along the coast is being proposed, all overseen by Department of Fish and Game.

Already, the department oversees ocean areas out to three miles from land, about 3,000 square miles.

The newly proposed areas - still on the drawing boards - might restrict or ban fishing in 15 to 20 percent of these state waters spread over 41 preserves. Working proposals have been made with the input of scientific experts from up and down the state, but are not yet finalized.

The MLPA has become so controversial that additional time has been legislated to draw public comment for another 18 months. The problem, for both fishermen and consumers: the short term prospects of fewer fish.

Frustrated fishermen

"We feel the state has talked only to scientists who have spent limited time on the ocean," says Zeke Grader, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fisherman's Associations. "The reaction from recreational and commercial fishermen as well as divers is not unexpected: They've gone ballistic at seeing some of their prime areas closed off."

Other groups are banding together to propose alternatives.

"This is the largest thing to affect marine sport fishing ever in California," says Tom Raftican, president of United Anglers of Southern California, who anticipates a possible constitutional challenge to the MLPA.

His group proposes a host of other measures, including season closures, bag and slot limits (restrictions on the number and size of catchable fish) and rolling closures. "The reserves they are proposing will be the largest in the world, but they haven't done the science that assures any improvement in the fisheries. This is our concern."

Partly because of reactions such as this, Assemblyman Shelley helped win passage of A.B. 1673 which allows for a one-year postponement of the proposed preserve sites for MLPA.

While these and other players gather to pursue alternatives, many academics are entering the fray as well, trying to raise public consciousness about what's at stake.

"The most important thing for the public to realize is that all of these resources belong to the society as a whole - all of America, not just California," says Paul Dayton, a marine ecologist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. "They are just like everything in the national forests, parks and wilderness areas. Those things don't belong to farmers and ranchers and miners, and these fish don't belong exclusively to fishermen or anyone else either."

Out on the water, Warden Chris Graff has another concern, even when the amount and placement of such reserves is decided. In a word enforcement.

"This is a huge portion of ocean to patrol," says Graff, whose San Pedro based crew is charged with patrolling the southernmost 200 miles of California coast - with a secondary duty to patrol federal waters out to a distance of 200 miles.

His crews have recently been engaged to help the coastguard handling terrorist threats in the wake of the Sept. 11 tragedy. "Enforcing these two, new measures are only a small percentage of the larger task we have," he says.

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