A preferred alternative nobody prefers for South Coast marine protected areas

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A state panel has recommended a network of havens for marine life in California waters. Marine protected areas from San Diego up to Santa Barbara will join a statewide network, the largest of its kind in the country. The compromise plan doesn’t feel like a success to everyone yet.

California passed a law 10 years ago now to protect not just one fish or species, but entire areas of coastal waters. Nothing about enacting that cutting edge plan has been easy.

Still, fishermen, environmentalists, scientists all have talked – mostly calmly – for 14 months about plans for the Southern California coast. The most recent meeting took place in a hotel ballroom near L.A. International Airport.

When an Encino man named Charlie Volkens stood up and yelled at members of the blue ribbon task force that they had already made up their minds, it caused a stir. "You have not listened to us through this whole process!" he shouted. Volkens fishes from his kayak for white sea bass. Environmentalists want to conserve the same rocky bottoms where kelp thrive and where fishermen find prey.

That kept many no-fishing zones on the small side, and that worried the Ocean Conservancy’s Kaitlin Gaffney. "I think you’re pretty close to the bone and I hope you don’t go any farther, because, I don’t think you have to choose between habitat and humanity. But I fear if we cut any more we may have struck the wrong balance."

Enforcing that balance will be a task for the state Department of Fish and Game, said George Osborn, who represents the union of fish and game wardens. "Whatever you recommend to the fish and game commission will not be enforced," he said sternly. "We do not have the resources. We cannot enforce the regulations currently on the books."

The complex network of maps and protected areas fits a complex coastline and its interaction with fisheries. Cal State Northridge biologist Larry Allen co-chaired a team that advised the state on marine science. Allen said that while many fisheries are in trouble, it’s a complicated picture. "Finfish fisheries are statewide in trouble, we’ve known that for a while. In general the rockfishes are depleted. We’re waiting for them to come back. We have a mixed bag. We have some stocks that are obviously recovering, some that are on the way, some that are going down."

After an all-day hearing and the panel’s 5-to-0 decision, not to mention the 14 months of other meetings, the mood lifted. Longtime opponents bid each other farewell until the next hearing. The ballroom had the feeling of summer camp ending.

Stanford environmental law lecturer Meg Caldwell voted to approve the plan, even though she harbors reservations about protections for Rocky Point in Palos Verdes and La Jolla in San Diego County. Caldwell said the unanimous vote matters.

"It’s particularly important to send a clear message to the fish and game commission about the intensity of work that’s gone into this and that we’ve listened to all sides and we can come together and speak with one voice," Caldwell said. "And I hope that it will really be powerful to the fish and game commission as well."

But Bob Bertelli, a fishing captain who participated in the process of drawing the protected area maps, said fishermen might still organize to oppose this plan or to lobby for more adjustments in Sacramento. He and Charlie Volkens said fishermen objected to limits at Point Dume.

"The lobster fishery is going to suffer big time," Bertelli said. "And there’s literally hundreds of traps, 1,500 to 2,000 traps that now are going to have to go someplace else. Wherever they go, it means that area is going to be harder than it is being fished. These problems have not been addressed in this process."

The commission hasn’t changed the plans for North and Central California. Panel member Meg Caldwell said that in the South Coast region, people did a good job of creating areas that can protect marine life the way scientific research has shown they can.

"We know that they increase the number of species, the variety of species, the size of them, and the larger these fish are, the rockfish in particular, the more babies they produce," Caldwell said. "It’s a win-win for the fishing community and the recreational community and for the environment as well. There’s tremendous hope."

Other panel members agreed. They said a good compromise is one that leaves everyone a little dissatisfied. Before fish and game commissioners make the South Coast map final, fishermen and environmentalists will have one more opportunity to express their views about protected areas.