Tim Green, captain of the 80-foot sportfishing vessel Premiere, has been motoring paying customers from San Diego Bay to the Point Loma kelp beds for over 20 years. His anglers catch calico bass, halibut, white sea bass, barracuda, and other residential and migratory denizens of the coastal kelp beds.
But by 2010, a substantial portion of the fishing grounds on which Green and many other sportfishing captains and commercial fishermen depend could be closed by the Marine Life Protection Act, now gaining speed in its south coast phase. The act, dreaded by many fishermen but warmly welcomed by conservationists who assert that marine ecosystems are crumbling under fishing pressure, was first adopted by the state legislature in 1999 and has already turned approximately 20 percent of the central coast from the beach to three miles out into “marine protected areas.” In these zones, biodiversity is expected to increase and robust populations are expected to serve as nurseries for surrounding areas, where, according to the logic, fishermen may still reap the fruits of the sea.
“We’re going to see more fish, larger fish, and healthier, more resilient ecosystems,” said Kate Hanley, director of marine conservation at San Diego Coastkeeper. “The fishermen may be opposed to it now, but what we’re doing is quite the opposite of trying to put them out of business. We’re trying to preserve the business for their grandchildren.”
Already, a two-hectare no-fishing zone in La Jolla Cove established in 1971 has produced results, says Hanley — so dramatic, in fact, that she says kayaks can be seen daily “fishing the line” along preserve boundaries, pursuing the fish densities within. Green says he has never had or even heard of particularly hot fishing adjacent to the reserve, and he and others fear that the protection act will not benefit them but instead deliver heavy-handed economic impacts. Green, for one, doesn’t know where else he might fish if Point Loma is closed.
“That’s where we do most of our fishing,” he said. “As a half-day boat, we’re very limited in where we can go. We have six hours to go fishing and come back. If Point Loma shuts down, that’s going to put a real bite into our business.”
A state-appointed science-advisory team for the protection act is working to collect data on Southern California seafloor structure, habitat types and boundaries, and species requirements. The team will eventually supply the information to a panel of 30 regional stakeholders, representing local conservation groups, fishermen, tribal interests, and more. These stakeholders will then draw up alternate proposals for marine protected areas that attempt to meet the act’s environmental objectives without unduly impacting anyone’s livelihood. The blue-ribbon task force, a group of seven men and women appointed by the director of the Department of Fish and Game, will eventually select one of the proposals, perhaps do some editing, and turn it over to the Fish and Game Commission for final approval. Former San Diego mayor Susan Golding is a member of the task force. Green believes that the fishing community will ultimately receive the short end of the stick.
“It’s all politically driven to begin with,” says Green. “We really have no say in what’s going to be done in the end.”
His suspicion and that of others comes largely from the fact that the protection act, which stalled for several years after its adoption due to a lack of funding, is being carried out now primarily with private money from the Resources Legacy Fund Foundation. This Sacramento-based organization is committed to conserving natural resources and “assists other organizations in carrying out environmental protection projects,” according to the foundation’s homepage mission statement. Steve Scheiblauer believes this particular funding source has obligated the state to pander to the foundation’s own interests and objectives. Scheiblauer, the harbormaster of Monterey, participated as a stakeholder in the Marine Life Protection Act’s “south central coast” phase, which wrapped up in 2007 and left many fishermen between Point Conception and San Mateo County less than happy with the new restrictions. Scheiblauer reports that the blue-ribbon task force “utterly disregarded” most commentary, concerns, and suggestions from fishermen.
“Even though the fishermen’s proposal for [marine protected area] placement was by far the most popular among the stakeholders, it didn’t get a single vote from the blue-ribbon task force,” said Scheiblauer. “They only made political decisions to take away key, rich habitat from fishermen and other extractive users, even though plenty of evidence showed the areas were not overfished.”
Marine protected areas consist of three categories: state marine reserves, in which all activity — even swimming or kayaking — may be banned; state marine parks, in which commercial take is prohibited; and state marine conservation areas, in which commercial and recreational take may occur to limited extents, or not at all. Many fishermen disagree with the protection act’s method of using marine protected areas, insisting that traditional per-species fisheries management is more effective and to the point. They argue that minimum size limits, daily bag limits, possession limits, yearly quotas, and seasonal closures sufficiently guard against overexploitation of the species that need such protection.
Those in the commercial sea urchin industry even warn that the harvest closures they expect from the protection act could devastate the very ecosystem that the act is designed to protect. Dave Rudie, owner of Catalina Offshore Products, a local seafood wholesaler, says the sea urchin population is liable to boom out of control if relieved of commercial harvest by the county’s 15 divers. Sea urchins’ primary natural predator — the sea otter — has been absent from the ecosystem for almost two centuries, and if human predation is eliminated in places like Point Loma or the La Jolla kelp beds, it could mean the disappearance of the marine forests.
“We know what urchins do,” said Rudie. “They eat kelp. If the state stops the commercial industry, we’re going to see urchins form the same kinds of armies we saw in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s.”
It was in the 1950s that parts of Southern California’s kelp forests largely vanished. Sprawling populations of red and purple sea urchins were held to blame, and in the 1960s and ’70s boats dumped quicklime — with permission from authorities — in the sea to kill urchins. In the 1980s scuba divers toting hammers participated in a progressive urchin-smashing program overseen by the California Department of Fish and Game. At last, when trade between local divers and Japanese buyers became viable circa 1975, the urchin population decreased substantially and the kelp beds recovered.
“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.