“They were smashing [urchins] and poisoning them, and the state actually asked us to go diving to control them,” recalled Pete Halmay, a veteran urchin diver who says that he has logged some 20,000 dives in the local “urchin gardens” since the 1970s and that the red sea urchin population has been stable for years. “Now we’re being told we need to stop for the benefit of the ecosystem. The urchins are just going to eat their way out of the kelp beds again.”
But Fish and Game marine biologist Pete Kalvass isn’t convinced that a halt on urchin harvest will wreak devastation on the kelp forests. Kalvass attributes the 1950s kelp crash to the growing human population and resulting water pollution of the era. Kalvass adds that two closures on urchin collection along California’s north coast, now in their 20th year, have not resulted in ruinous population growth of sea urchins or “kelp barrens.” Greg Helms, manager of conservation with Ocean Conservancy, also believes that marine life will manage without the presence of urchin divers.
“Marine protected areas will allow big sheephead and lobster to thrive, and these animals will act as predators upon the urchins. Divers aren’t a required part of the ecosystem.”
The protection act will ultimately leave about 80 percent of the state’s coastline accessible and fully open to use, but fishermen say that figure blankets the fact that harvest closures are likely to occur disproportionately in the productive habitat crucial to their professions. Matt Edwards, associate professor of biology at San Diego State University, believes that economic impacts will be temporary.
“There might be impacts on the fishermen in the form of lower catches and profits in the short term, but in the long term we’re trying to sustain these fisheries and populations.”
After all, says San Diego Coastkeeper’s Hanley, fishing regulations are not working.
“We saw a total collapse and closure of the rockfish fishery in the 1990s,” she says. “This idea of the foxes regulating themselves and guarding the henhouse doesn’t work.”
Department of Fish and Game sources expect the protection act’s south-coast phase to be finalized by June 2010. Until then, the process welcomes public input to aid the stakeholders as they draw up the first rough proposals and attempt to meet the act’s objectives of preserving ecosystem integrity while minimizing effects on commercial and recreational use of the ocean. A pair of public meetings will be held at the Holiday Inn San Diego on the Bay on January 13 and 14. The podium will be open to all, and Spanish-speaking translators will be available, say protection act spokespeople.
For many, the protection act process may seem drastic and even unnecessary.
“Some of these reserves are going to put the water off-limits to all people but the scientists themselves,” says Captain Green. “I just want my kids and grandkids to be able to enjoy the water and the fish the way I have.”
But Hanley is confident that future generations will appreciate the work now being done.
“People thought Teddy Roosevelt was nuts for designating 5 percent of the United States to wilderness areas. I’m hoping that 100 years from now people will look back and say, ‘Thank goodness we preserved these marine areas. Look at what we have now.’ ”
Upcoming public meetings: January 13, 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., and January 14, 8:00 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., Holiday Inn San Diego on the Bay, 1355 North Harbor Drive.