Environment & Science

State setting values for marine life in new protected areas

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A new and larger system of marine protected areas off southern California’s coast is under discussion this week in San Diego County. State resource managers are consulting people who fish and play in coastal waters to help choose where and how to limit access to valuable areas.
KPCC’s Molly Peterson reports there’s some tension between ecological and economic values.

Since the 1970s, a jumble of sea life sanctuaries has sprouted offshore. California’s 10-year old Marine Life Protection Act aims to transform that mishmash into a scientifically-informed system – with some help from the people who use coastal waters the most. The Ocean Conservancy’s Kaitlin Gaffney says that’s unusual.

Kaitlin Gaffney: "Tell the fishermen and the conservationists to sit down around a table and try to work it out. It’s incredibly difficult to do, but in theory, better than having a bureaucrat in Sacramento decide where the lines should be and the regulations should be."

In Southern California, 64 people have been working out where to locate marine reserves, with no fishing or destructive activity, and where to reserve other areas with limited activity. Conservationists including the Ocean Conservancy and Heal the Bay want to revive habitat and depleted fisheries. Heal the Bay’s director, Mark Gold, says the meetings haven’t made news, but the people at them have made waves.

Mark Gold: "The second round was really contentious, you had the fishing community and the environmental community really at each others' throats, they ended up doing majority rule votes, and that's not what negotiations is all about. So let's get back to what's best for the marine environment as well as protecting Southern California's coastal economy."

That’s a complex economy. It takes in a thousand or so miles of coastline from Point Conception to the Mexican border, and pastimes like boating, surfing, and tidepooling that add to tourism revenues. It also counts fishing - commercial fishery landings in south coast ports have averaged about $68 million a year. One chunk of that money comes from the red sea urchin catch. Guys like Bob Bertelli dive to kelp beds for urchins and sell them as a delicacy to sushi chefs.

Bob Bertelli: "We’re starting to learn that there has to be major compromises made in southern California. The marine life protection act was written for the entire state. You’re going to have to make allowances for the unique habitat in each situation we have here in southern CA."

Bertelli wants to protect the well-exploited rocky sea beds where urchins thrive, and to restore some kelp beds. He also wants to keep fishing. Bertelli’s urchin divers joined a statewide fishery alliance that says protected areas are more likely to deliver economic harm than habitat conservation.

Bertelli: "We want ‘em to be reasonable and we want them to be sited so they work. We want to get the most bang for the buck."

The south coast region is marked by diversity: of habitat, of marine life, of fishing opportunity, of coastal users. Half the state’s population lives in the region. So it’s not easy to gauge opinions from people who aren’t already in the loop. New York transplant Charlie Volkens lives in Encino; he first dropped lines into Pacific waters from party boats. He stopped when he decided it’s destructive to fish that way.

Charlie Volkens: "They'll rape a reef, if you don't mind me saying, and I didn't want to fish like that."

Volkens still fishes in Malibu – these days from his kayak. He says the people he meets in bait and tackle shops don’t know the state’s considering protected areas. The way he sees it, fishermen take too much flak for decimating marine life.

Volkens: The biggest issue, which is pollution runoff, nobody's tackling that issue, the real issue. The only harm that is being done to our coastline is from runoff right now.

The state is considering the harmful effects of onshore pollution. Like Charlie Volkens, groups including Heal the Bay want tougher rules for runoff. Mark Gold says environmentalists and fishermen can find value in making rules to protect areas of the ocean.

Mark Gold: "We both want a lot of fish to be off the coast of southern California. And the disagreement is, how do we actually get there and how much consumption can occur in various different areas?"

That disagreement is far from over. People in the Southland still have time to comment before state fish and game commissioners complete their marine protection plans this winter.