Environmentalists seeking stronger ocean protections

By Mike Taugher, Contra Costa Times
January 8, 2002

The future of California's rugged coastline is up for debate as marine sanctuary managers enter the final few weeks of public comment on revisions to the ocean rules.

The waters from Bodega Bay to San Luis Obispo County were included in a series of three federal marine sanctuaries created between 1981 and 1992, in part to protect the Central and North coasts from offshore oil development.

But a host of other threats and issues could be addressed as management plans are updated for the first time. Those plans will help determine what is allowed in a 400-mile ribbon of ocean that is up to 12 miles wide and covers 7,000 square-miles, nearly as much area as the states of Connecticut and Rhode Island combined.

It is a region that is rich and varied in sea life, from the two-mile deep canyon off Monterey Bay to the Cordell Bank.

A sea anemone- and sponge-encrusted submerged island, the Cordell Bank rises steeply to within 120 feet of the ocean's surface and encourages an upwelling of deep sea nutrients that scientists say contribute to an explosion of life, 25 miles off the Marin County coast.

Taken together, the Cordell Bank, Gulf of the Farallones and Monterey Bay national marine sanctuaries support an array of human uses, including whale watching, surfing, shipping, aquaculture, kelp harvesting and commercial fisheries of squid, rockfish, sole, anchovy, mackerel, sardines, sablefish, albacore, salmon, crab, herring, and other species. The sanctuaries extend from the high tide mark offshore, up to 12 miles off the coast.

This week and next, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is hosting a series of meetings in the northern half of the sanctuaries' area, from Gualala to San Jose, to accept ideas about what should be considered in the new plans. Last month, they conducted similar meetings between Cambria and Santa Cruz.

Better control of coastal runoff and expanding the sanctuary boundaries further south are under discussion. So is further regulation of personal watercraft and new fiber optic cables.

But perhaps most controversial of all, environmentalists are pushing for stricter fishing regulations.

"This is supposed to be the Yellowstone and Yosemite of the ocean. Making sure some of that has the greatest level of protection just makes sense," said Kaitilin Gaffney, the central California coast program manager for the Ocean Conservancy.

The conservancy and other environmental groups want "marine protected areas" established, where more stringent fishing regulations would be added along the California coast. That could include putting some areas entirely off limits to fishing, much as national parks are generally off-limits to hunting.

"The book is open with what we might do with that," said Anne Walton, the management plan coordinator for the Farallones and Cordell Bank sanctuaries. "Everything is possible at this point."

But rather than have the sanctuaries establish new fishing rules, Gaffney said the Ocean Conservancy wants to see NOAA help other agencies develop them.

"We don't need three systems," Gaffney said. "We need one that makes sense."

Fishing groups are generally opposed to the designation of new fishing reserves, and they note that the sanctuaries were created with the understanding that NOAA would not further regulate fishing.

Instead, fishing is regulated by the California Department of Fish and Game in state waters, which is the area within three miles of the coast, and the federal waters beyond are regulated by the Pacific Fisheries Management Council.

Still, commercial fishing groups are bracing for the worst. The state is already developing its own network of marine preserves, and those regulations could be extended by federal agencies to deeper waters.

"It hasn't come down to an in-your-face deal yet, but it's going to come down to that," said Mike Stiller, a commercial salmon fisherman and president of the Santa Cruz chapter of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations.

"We don't believe the sanctuaries should be in fishing management, period," Stiller said. "They want to manage the whole ecosystem, and that includes fishing."

Some environmentalists argue that marine reserves are a way to address declining stocks. Some species of rockfish, for example, have declined by more than 90 percent.

But sanctuary managers and others say scientists are not certain of the status of many ocean fish species, and they are unsure in many cases about the cause of the decline of other species.

"The numbers indicate that some of the fisheries are (down), but the cause is not always clear," said Walton, the sanctuary plan manager.

Sanctuary officials said they hope to have the plans done by next year.