Troubled Waters

Officials get an earful in debate over sanctuary

8/25/01 By Melinda Burns
Santa Barbara News Press Staff Writer

The state Fish and Game Commission on Friday was bombarded with arguments for and against a large network of no-fishing zones at the Channel Islands, as hundreds of people crowded into the Veterans Memorial Building on Cabrillo Boulevard, spilling over onto the sidewalk.

The commission's three members -- two seats are vacant -- were in Santa Barbara to hear a proposal by the state Department of Fish and Game and the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary to ban fishing in 25 percent of sanctuary waters.

The sanctuary extends six miles out from Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, San Miguel and Santa Barbara islands.

The commissioners, none of whom was from Southern California, got an earful from two diametrically opposed groups.

The fishermen in the audience applauded, stamped their feet and held up yellow cards with the words, "California fishing license," as Tom Raftican, president of United Anglers of Southern California, a nonprofit group with 40,000 members, said, "Our money should not be going to pay for marine reserves."

United Anglers, Mr. Raftican said, had collected 20,000 signatures against the proposed 25-percent set-aside.

"We don't oppose marine reserves," he said. "We do oppose excessive closures."

But for every fisherman who spoke against creating these national parks of the sea, an environmentalist spoke in favor, cheered on by equally loud clapping and hooting.

"Today you stand at a crossroads of history," said Richard Charter, a spokesman for Environmental Defense, a nonprofit group in Oakland with 300,000 members nationwide. "At no time, when we created the sanctuary 20 years ago, was it envisioned as a theater for extinction. Please protect this special place and its living inhabitants for future generations."

Mr. Charter handed the commissioners 1,000 letters in support of the proposed 25-percent set-aside.

At the close of the five-hour hearing, the commission voted to consider a wider range of no-fishing scenarios, representing 12 percent to 30 percent of sanctuary waters. The next hearing on Channel Island marine reserves will be held in San Diego in October. No decision is expected this year.

Sanctuary officials say that 43 species of mammals, birds, fish and shellfish around the islands are in decline. The white abalone, a species driven into collapse by overfishing and disease, has been recently listed as endangered. Boccacio, lingcod, cowcod and canary rockfish have been declared overfished and in danger of collapse.

The 25-percent set-aside was billed as a compromise, based on two years of community debate here by fishermen, environmentalists, researchers and government officials. A panel of marine scientists chosen by the group had recommended that between 30 and 50 percent of sanctuary waters be protected.

While fish grow larger and more abundantly in a reserve of any size, the scientists said, only a large reserve would have "spillover" effects, helping to replenish the depleted populations of fish outside its boundaries.

Robert Warner, a UCSB marine biologist who served on the panel, warned the commissioners not to whittle down the reserve scenarios below 25 percent of sanctuary waters.

"Any reduction in this plan would begin to cross the line," he said. "What's being lost in this conversation is that when reserves are an adequate size, the fishing has gotten better. I think we need to get a little perspective. We're not necessarily taking away. We may be benefiting."

But the fishermen said they feared many among them would be forced out of business by a 25-percent set-aside. Chris Miller, a lobster fisherman from Santa Barbara, gave the commission an alternative map, supported in concept by commercial fishermen in Ventura and Santa Barbara, that shrank some of the no-fishing areas and replaced them with partial closures.

"Twenty-five percent in one shot is way beyond reason," said Richard Zellers, a Lompoc marine biology teacher who dives for lobster off the islands. "As you close away areas, you fish much harder in other areas. It's destined to fail."

Divorce, suicide and drugs could be the lot of those put out of work, the fishermen said. On one hand, they said, there were still plenty of fish at the islands, if you knew where to look. On the other hand, they said, ocean pollution, sea otters and sea lions were to blame for declines in fisheries.

"I'm resentful to the max," said Michael Harrington, a commercial fisherman. "I got into the fishing business because I was an environmentalist. Now I'm being portrayed as someone who pillages the ocean. I can't turn on the TV without hearing what a bad guy I am."

The sportfishing industry urged the commission to start with small no-fishing zones and phase them in over a period of time.

"We squeezed out every ounce of agreement from our members, sometimes kicking and screaming, and it was ignored," said Bob Fletcher, president of the San Diego-based Sportfishing Association of California. "Let's go slow and take a look at how they work before we devastate the people who are here today."

The environmentalists responded with equally impassioned pleas for the establishment of large no-fishing zones around the islands as soon as possible. Some said the proposed 25-percent set-aside did not sufficiently protect kelp forests around the islands. Others said the small no-fishing zone off Anacapa was virtually the only place where divers could still find an abundance of underwater life.

Mary Stack of the Otter Project, a nonprofit group, told the commission that fully half of the sanctuary waters should be set aside to help otters recover. Historically, there were 15,000 otters off the coast of California; today there are only 2,000, Ms. Stack said. Twenty percent of the animal's habitat is at the islands, she said.

Peggy Oki of Carpinteria, a supporter of marine reserves, held up a flier she said had offended her, depicting an otter swallowing a fishing boat. The flier, which was for a fishermen's fund-raising event, was announcing a "Sea Otter Barbeque."

"It's a joke!" someone yelled from the crowd.

"It's not a joke," Ms. Oki said.