350 square miles of California water soon to be restricted fishing areas

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A plan to protect ocean health by restricting fishing in some areas takes effect in Southern California in just a few days. The California Department of Fish and Game has set marine protected areas over about 15 percent of waters between Point Conception and Imperial Beach, authorized by the Marine Life Protection Act.

The 12-year-old state law applies what’s called "marine spatial planning" to all of the coastal waters. A lengthy and tense negotiation process has led to patchworked limits on what people can fish and take away from the 354 square miles of sea south of Point Conception.

“California made a really innovative step here, to link marine protected areas in a network,” said biologist Larry Crowder, who runs the Stanford Center for Ocean Solutions in Monterey. Closures in places like Malibu’s Point Dume, Naples Reef in Santa Barbara, and Laguna Beach all preserve different places within the same ecology. Crowder said this helps fish and other marine life feed and breed.

“People doing the science discovered that a single protected area doesn’t achieve what a network of linked protected areas would do,” he said. “So what California did is think in a really large way about the value added by individual protected areas.”

Linking closure areas also kept some areas open, including La Jolla and, further north, Rocky Point off the Palos Verdes Peninsula. Rocky Point was a flashpoint in the negotiated process, a battle some environmentalists feel they lost.

Why conservation?

Seth Stevenson, 24, lives in flip flops and works at the Santa Monica Pier Aquarium. Even on a so-so day, on a boat above a kelp forest is exactly where he wants to be. Now he’s buckling on weights to dive into Santa Monica bay.

“Have fun, be safe,” his fellow aquarist Jose Bacallo says.

“I will,” Stevenson says, jumping with a splash into the water.

When he comes back up, Stevenson yanks a full mesh bag up with him, a harvest of specimens and food for marine life on exhibit. “The best way I can describe [looking for specimens] is filling a washing machine full of champagne and looking for your lost sock.”

This nearshore habitat is a nursery to fish and invertebrates, and to the plants and algae that feed them, said Stevenson’s skipper and co-worker Jose Bacallo. That’s what he and Stevenson take, very carefully. Bacallo lists the species.

“Macrocystis, which is giant kelp. And we do also collect feather boa, plokamium, codium. A lot of different kinds of red, green and brown algae. Which people usually call seaweed.”

The aquarium where Bacallo and Stevenson work is affiliated with environmental activist group Heal the Bay. During planning those advocates pushed for stronger and larger protections, including around Rocky Point, which was left out of the marine protected network.

“There’s a few coves out here where there are literally barren because urchins have taken over,” Bacallo said. “One kind of alga or two kinds of algae. You’re going to see a really simple community, one or two kinds of fish. That’s a sign of an unhealthy habitat. A community that’s been degraded. And a lot of times that happens because we’ve overfished.”

Commercial and recreational fishermen united to argue in court and in meetings that they don’t deserve all the blame. They point at on-shore pollution, like stormwater runoff, that cities send into the sea. They say changing ocean conditions, like temperature, change the food web, too.

The state plans to monitor what happens in and around marine protected areas, but gathering data is not cheap. To get the most use out of budget-strapped monitoring programs, state officials are asking scientists what’s most essential. These are what Stanford biologist Larry Crowder calls "vital signs."

“They don’t send you for a CAT scan right away unless you have insurance, right? So there’s a set of vital rates we can measure about these ecosystems,” he said. “What’s important about those vital rates is that they’re not just in the oceans. They’re in the ocean economies and in the human communities.”

Who owns the water?

Commercial fishermen are a big part of those communities. In January, the waterfront’s mostly a working place where fishermen chase urchin and spiny lobster. Under a fat full moon, in San Pedro’s chilly predawn, that includes Josh Fisher, who pulls up a plastic trap and empties it into a huge bucket.

Rolling it down an orange-lit dock, Fisher says demand in China for these lobsters is on the rise.

“One lobster right now, an average lobster, is worth $28. Just one. It’s almost comical what the value is. It’s insane,” he snorts. “I seldom eat them anymore. They’re worth too much money.”

Permits for taking lobster in California are limited, with about 130 permittees actively working statewide. Fisher says the areas the state’s choosing to protect are prime territory. Lobstermen are already pretty competitive out there, according to Fisher.

The lobsterman uses a blade to cut the zip-ties that hold his lobsters in the trap. Zip ties keep the lobsters in; they also keep other people out. Fisher thinks competition is about to become more fierce.

“It will be interesting to see how it shakes out when the closures are in effect. Cause obviously you’ll have the same number of guys in a smaller area.”

Fish and game wardens already set all kind of limits on the water- about who can fish when, about what kind of tackle fishermen can use. Paul Hamdorf, the assistant chief of Fish and Game’s southern enforcement district, said new rules happen routinely as seasons or years begin. But he also said marine protected areas are unusually complex.

“The expectation that we know exactly what’s going to happen on the first is unrealistic,” replied Hamdorf. “It’s a big undertaking, there will be adjustments, we’ll do our best with the public to work through it.”

Working through it means getting word out through angler’s groups, Surfrider and cities about what’s off-limits. Fish and Game has even developed a mobile-device friendly website. Smartphone users with location services enabled can see where they are relative to the closed spots.

All this, according to Hamdorf, is part of an initial push to school people about the rules.

“And then as time goes on we’ll expect that more and more people know. Signs. If somebody’s walked by signs or if they’re holding a map in their pocket that shows the closures. All of those things play into how we’re gonna enforce it.”

Hamdorf said enforcement will come in waves as the weather warms up. Spring and summer will bring more recreational anglers out to the ocean, spear fishermen and kayak fishermen, charter boats and party boats.

Complicating all of this is the fact that fishermen and the warden’s union say the state’s enforcement arm is understaffed. Just 80 wardens for the Department of Fish and Game will enforce closures for millions of people along hundreds of miles of the south coast.

Wardens say they find out who does know the rules by talking to them.

When worlds collide

Fisher and his friend Bob Bertelli, a barrel-chested, bushy-mustached urchin diver, see the green Fish and Game truck a long ways off. By the time Warden Josh Handler gets close, they’re ready to greet him. “Morning, how you doing?” Fisher says. Handler identifies himself, and Bertelli starts laughing. “Really? But anyone can buy those uniforms.”

Handler asks where they fished, and takes note of their boat and license numbers. He gauges the size of the lobsters with a tool. It’s a standard compliance check.

California is accounting for economic effects from closures. But Bertelli suspects the state won’t account for all the damage they’ll do.

“If they do the numbers the way they have in the past they’re gonna stop at the dock,” Bertelli says. “They’re not going to show the lost income to restaurants and people who work at restaurants, fish markets and people who work in fish markets, truckers that haul the fish product away.”

Portland-based Ecotrust did some economic studies during the planning process for marine protected areas. Fishermen now want to make their own studies. Conservationists are taking surveys, too, about how well-informed coastal users are.

Built into the law is the expectation that the state can tweak protected areas based on emerging science and economic data. Stanford biologist Larry Crowder says that’s a good thing.

“The notion that we would get things right with the first set of marine protected areas in California is just about as sure as I’ll get my stock bids right in the stock market,” Crowder says. “If you’re a savvy investor you can do pretty well but that doesn’t mean you’re not going to want to make adjustments.”

Bertelli shakes his head. The guys that are fishing now aren’t gonna see that benefit, he says. Fish and game officials counsel guys like Bertelli and Fisher to give protected areas a chance to work.

But Bertelli says protected areas should protect his industry, too. And in a down economy, fishermen don’t have time to wait.

“They’re the ones making the sacrifice and nothing is being done to address the sacrifice they’re making,” he says.

Barring more legal challenges, 49 marine protected areas and three special closures will stay in place for several years in the South Coast region before the state re-evaluates them. Fishermen, the state, and conservationists are already gearing up for another contentious discussion about these protected areas then.

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