New state law geared to protect more undersea habitat

it is designed to reverse a drop in fish stocks
and will establish zones to bar or limit
fishing and recreation

By Gary Polakovic
Published Wednesday, October 13, 1999

Gov. Gray Davis has signed into law a bill to overhaul Californiaís patchwork of ocean reserves that for the first time establishes fishing-exclusion zones like those proposed for the Channel Islands off Ventura County as a key strategy to protect marine life.

The Marine Life Protection Act aims to halt the decline of fish stocks by preserving critical undersea habitat, from deep canyons to sandy flats, similar to the way wilderness areas are carved out of forests and mountains.

It also calls for an enhanced network of no-take refuges, where commercial and sport fishing fleets as well as some recreational uses are off limits, so sea creatures can flourish.

The bill, sponsored by Assembly Majority Leader Kevin Shelley, D-San Francisco, was debated in various incarnations in the Legislature for the last two years before it landed on Davisí desk with the support of environmentalists, commercial fishing groups and scientists. Davis signed the bill Sunday night.

The bill, AB993, requires the state Department of Fish and Game to convene an expert panel and complete a blueprint to revamp the marine protected areas by April 2002. An improved network of fishing-free zones must be included in the final plan. Today, nine such refuges spanning 6,100 acres exist offshore California.

"It is the most important piece of ocean legislation the governor has signed this year. Itís a long-overdue policy change that will get California back on the cutting edge of marine habitat protection," said Ann Notthoff, California advocacy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Under a program separate from the new marine bill, state wildlife officials and Channel Islands National Park managers are seeking to establish a network of no-take fish refuges at the five northern Channel Islands.

Environmentalists and many scientists see that as the best hope to restore depleted fisheries.

"The places that are going to have fisheries 30 years from now are the ones that establish no-take reserves now," said Bill Ballantine, marine biologist at University of Auckland.

Over the last century, California agencies and politicians have assembled 104 marine refuges, sanctuaries and protected areas, including about 37 acres around Anacapa Island. While they were intended to conserve marine resources, they provide merely an illusion of protection because they were created piecemeal, with confusing regulations and based upon "political instincts and not a scientific basis," Shelley said.

A 1998 study by the University of California Sea Grant program concluded that fishing restrictions inside existing protected areas differ little from those outside. For example, fishing is prohibited in less than 1 percent of the 3.6 million acres of the stateís coastal waters.

Although other regulations, including catch size and seasonal restrictions, apply to all coastal waters, there is wide agreement among scientists that they have not prevented fishing fleets from significantly depleting stocks of abalone, rockfish, lingcod and urchin, and that remaining populations need safe havens to recover.

"We are tying to overhaul what we have and create a new system," Shelley said. "We want to make it very clear that there needs to be no-take areas, and that has not been made clear in the past, and the fish populations have suffered in return. Itís in the long-term interest of (fishermenís) livelihood to support marine protected areas and no-take zones so fish can flourish."

Around the world, many nations are closing parts of the ocean as a tool of last resort to save fish stocks. In the United States, 80 percent of 191 commercial stocks are overfished, according to the National Research Council.

In developing a master plan for protected areas, the law requires a nine-member panel to consider which habitats to include, the species most in need of protection and enforcement strategies. The panel will work in concert with Fish and Game and stakeholders in various regions around the state.

The master plan will be completed after a series of public hearings and review by the state Fish and Game Commission.

Former Gov. Pete Wilson last year rejected a similar bill by Shelley in the face of opposition from fishing groups. However, last-minute amendments to this yearís version of the bill in the Senate removed a requirement to significantly expand acreage dedicated to no-take refuges, reducing opposition from fishing interests.

Amendments also prohibit other activities in marine reserves, including use of personal watercraft, which could be disruptive to fish.

Vern Goehring, lobbyist for the 400-member Sea Urchin Harvesters Association, said fishermen are beginning to recognize they may have to give up access to some stretches of coastline in the short run to ensure that enough fish are around to catch in the long run.

"There are mixed feelings," Goehring said. "Many fishing organizations are resolved there are going to be more no-take zones in California. Itís a growing trend worldwide, and they are intrigued by the science that shows in some cases it might be beneficial to fishing. A healthy ecosystem is beneficial to fishing, and there are going to be no-take reserves set up in California."

Marine refuges are valuable to science because they provide an intact marine ecosystem researchers can use to study the ocean environment and changes occurring in waters where human influence is significant.

Fish refuges, too, are powerful visitor magnets in parts of the Pacific, where divers and schoolchildren learn about fish while pumping tourist dollars into local economies.

"This bill alone is not going to solve the problems, but it is a good first step to better management of our stateís fisheries and for creating reserves," said Mia Tegner, research ecologist at Scripps Institution of Oceanography.