July 10, 2001
By Carol Benfell
SEBASTOPOL -- A show of hands at the state Fish and Game Department's kickoff meeting Monday showed fishermen's overwhelming opposition to a proposal that would close 25 square miles of ocean to sport and commercial fishing.
More than 200 fishermen overflowed the small meeting room at the Sebastopol teen center, spilling onto the porch and into the lobby.
The meeting, the first of 20 scheduled throughout the state by Fish and Game, was to discuss a proposal for marine protected areas that would benefit fish and their habitat. But long-simmering resentment at Fish and Game management spilled out early in the meeting in a series of angry exchanges.
Fishermen loudly protested the lack of notice about the meeting, as well as previous Fish and Game inaction when signs of a decline in groundfish stocks were seen years ago. They also complained that no matter what they said, they feared the proposal was a done deal.
"What assurance do people in the room have that anything will be done to change these proposals?" said Steve Werlin, a Dillon Beach sport fisherman.
"We will vent and we will feel good because we fought the good fight and in the end it will be almost the same."
Although some fishermen interjected angry attacks on the Fish and Game proposal, one fisherman had a conciliatory word.
"Everyone is worried about losing their fishing rights and no one knows what's really happening," said Jim Tremari, a sport fisherman from Petaluma.
The proposal calls for creating 16 state marine reserves, some 25 square miles in total between San Francisco and the Oregon border, where no sport or commercial fishing would be allowed.
Fish and Game also wants to set aside areas for state marine parks, where limited sport fishing would be allowed, and state marine conservation areas, for limited commercial and sport fishing.
"A lot of the stuff is too close to ports. A lot of guys don't have big boats and they can't go out so far," said Tom Baker of Forestville.
Department of Fish and Game officials said they were aware of objections from fishermen.
"We're aware of the current restrictions on fisheries, we're aware that this may create an additional hardship," said Paul Reilly, coordinator for the Department of Fish and Game. "But the marine Protection Act is state law, and we are required to carry it out."
Although the meeting generated opposition, environmentalists earlier defended the plan.
"Marine reserves are the best tool we have to actually increase the number and size of marine fish," said Warner Chabot, vice president of the Ocean Conservancy in San Francisco, an environmental group.
"Hundreds of scientific articles have shown the benefits of marine reserves and other protected areas around the world. On average, reserves had twice as many fish overall and three times as many large fish as did exploited areas," Chabot said before the meeting.
The state's Marine Life Protection Act requires the Department of Fish and Game to coordinate the system of marine preserves along the coast.
The goal is to protect fish habitat and stocks of groundfish, some of which have declined by 80 percent in the past 20 years, according to the Pacific Fisheries Management Council.
Groundfish includes lingcod, whiting, jack mackeral and bocaccio -- sold as red snapper -- among others.
In the proposal discussed Monday, Fish and Game has renamed existing refuges to more accurately reflect their limits on fishing, expanded some refuges and created new ones.
Several efforts are under way to halt the decline of groundfish, which have value both as food and in sustaining a larger ecosystem.
These include a buy-back program, in which the federal government seeks to curtail the number of fishermen by buying back commercial fishing boats and fishing licenses, and a state Nearshore Management Plan, which will establish fishing rules in the areas where groundfish are found.
Nineteen other informational meetings are scheduled in the next two months. Fish and Game officials expect to use the comments in drawing up a draft proposal that will go to the Fish and Game Commission in January.
You can reach Staff Writer Carol Benfell at 521-5259 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.