State makes waters off-limits to fishing Ban

Starting with 130 square miles near Channel Islands -- is a major policy shift

By Jane Kay
October 24, 2002
San Francisco Chronicle


In a precedent-setting vote aimed at replenishing decimated marine life off the California coast, a commission created the state's first network of no-fishing marine reserves Wednesday.

The California Fish and Game Commission, meeting in Santa Barbara, voted 2- 1 to ban both sport and commercial fishing in about 130 square miles of state waters around the Channel Islands off the Santa Barbara coast.

If federal agencies complete their part of the plan in U.S. waters within two years, the marine reserve area would be enlarged to encompass about 400 square miles.

"This is a victory for the environment and our fishing communities," said Warner Chabot, regional vice president of the Ocean Conservancy. "It's a landmark decision. It's pro-science, pro-environment, pro-fisherman."

But commercial and sportfishing groups decried the decision, saying it would damage their livelihoods.

"This is going to put out of business some of our favorite boats and some of our favorite landings. The areas being closed represent some of our better fishing spots," said Joel Greenberg, co-chairman of the Southern California chapter of the Recreational Fishing Alliance.

The strategy represents a fundamental shift from past marine conservation policies because it requires a blanket ban on taking any type of marine life. Existing regulations set size or catch limits, gear requirements and seasonal closures.

Only about 1 percent of the world's oceans have been placed off-limits to fishing. In California, the percentage of protected waters is less than 0.02 percent.

Leading scientists have called for 20 percent of the oceans around the globe to be turned into protected reserves. Earlier this month, Australia created the world's largest marine protected area, a 25,000-square-mile zone around the McDonald Islands in subantarctic waters.


Studies have shown that reserves not only increase numbers but also grow larger fish and a greater diversity of species that send offspring elsewhere in the ocean.

The new Channel Islands reserve will go into effect on the first of the year.

Under the impetus of the state Marine Life Protection Act of 1999, others are expected to follow in rich coastal regions, including Monterey, Ano Nuevo, Fitzgerald, Farallon Islands, Point Reyes Headlands and Fort Ross.

"These are historic times. California has recognized the importance of marine resources and the necessity to maintain them," said Mark Carr, associate professor of marine ecology at UC Santa Cruz and a member of a science panel selected to advise on the reserves.


Coastal residents from sport and commercial fishers to divers, charter fleet owners, equipment manufacturers and kayakers turned out at meetings to debate and argue over the plan and five alternatives, including creating no reserves at all.

Of 2,500 e-mail messages sent to the state Department of Fish and Game, all but 40 supported the plan preferred by the agency. Of the other 40, most supported some smaller reserve network.

Hundreds of people, however, voiced opposition at the hearings in Sacramento, San Luis Obispo, Long Beach and San Diego, including the commercial fishing and sportfishing industries, which said reducing fishing around the Channel Islands would hurt them economically.

The Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, representing the commercial fleets, said the depletion stems from mismanagement and pollution --

not from overfishing.

Individual sport anglers and representative organizations have been up in arms, saying their catches have a negligible effect on the populations. The American Sportsfishing Association and United Anglers say the water and tourism-based businesses would lose millions of dollars.


The waters around the Channel Islands teem with sea and bird life. The currents mix the colder water from the north with warmer water from the south creating kelp forests, rocky reefs and deep underwater canyons, home to more than 800 species of ocean life. More than 25 species of whales and dolphins feed in the waters.

The islands support colonies of California brown pelicans and western gulls,

and elephant seal rookeries.

In the last decades, however, after years of heavy fishing, the reef fish numbers have plummeted. Rockfish such as Pacific red snapper, cowcod and rockcod are depleted, triggering a fishing ban in deep-ocean waters by the regulating body, the Pacific Coast Fisheries Management Council.