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MARIN COUNTY'S NEWS MONTHLY - FREE PRESS
(415)868-1600 - (415)868-0502(fax) - P.O. Box 31, Bolinas, CA, 94924

June, 2007



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Environmental Update
Comments on the Ocean
By Frederick Smith, Jr.

Most of us experience the ocean while standing on the beach. From there, the ocean appears so deep and vast it's difficult to imagine that anything could change it or drive fish species to extinction. However, when we think this way, we grossly underestimate the enormous power humans have to drive change - both good and bad - in the natural world.
Evidence shows that current management of the California coast does not adequately ensure the long-term stability of fish populations nor the sea mammals and birds that depend upon a healthy ocean fishery. Some fish species have collapsed and many others are showing signs of the strain. Part of the problem is that, despite honorable land conservation efforts in the US, less than 1% of our ocean acreage is protected from direct human use. Prior to the Marine Life Protected Act process, California's marine reserves were few, small in size and allowed too many types of activities to offer much real protection.

In recent study published in the Journal Science in November 2006, marine biologists warned that without stronger protections most species now fished in the oceans would collapse by 2048. Among other measures, the study recommends governments designate marine reserves to protect habitat and provide a place to relieve the pressure of over-exploitation. Recent events in California bear signs of truth to the above prediction.

In 2000, the U.S. Secretary of Commerce declared the West Cost groundfish fishery "a disaster" and by 2002, seven species of rockfish were designated as over-fished. This led to patchwork fishing prohibitions of single species. Research also shows a dramatic decline in the average catch size of individual fish, meaning that larger, more fertile fish are scarcer. This should be a wakeup call to everyone who cares about the health of our oceans.

Before April of this year, California's efforts to protect marine areas off the coast have been minimal, compared with the state's success in preserving open space and other land resources. But the state took a big step in right direction on April 13, 2007, when the Fish and Game Commission approved a marine protected areas network for California's Central Coast between Santa Barbara and Half Moon Bay. The commission's preferred plan for the central coast, developed over three years by a diverse cross-section of people, puts aside 8% of the central coast as fully protected marine reserves, leaving 92% of the coast open to commercial and sport fishing, abalone diving, kelp harvest and other human activities. This is a great victory for struggling marine wildlife and for those who depend on a healthy ocean for their livelihood and peace of mind.

By 2011, California will design and implement a string of marine protected areas dotted along its 840 mile coastline, first moving to a section of the north central coast from Half Moon Bay to Point Arena, then working its way north and south. Success will depend upon people from different backgrounds working together to create a reasonable, effective plan for marine conservation. Hopefully it is one that protects a wide diversity of habitat that will help restore our once abundant fisheries for the benefit of fishing, wildlife and the local economy.

As a recently selected member of the Regional Stakeholder Group (RSG) for the north central coast, I will help design a marine protected areas plan that makes the most sense for Californians. The RSG represents a broad range of interests, such as commercial and sport fishermen, divers, conservationists, government agencies and area businesses. We are charged with working on a regional geographic profile of the area and working together to develop recommendations for a potential marine protected areas network plan to submit to the California Fish and Game Commission for consideration. Some marine protected areas may need the same level of protection as national parks, while others might only need to restrict one or two types of human activities that are particularly damaging to local habitat. The process for the North Central Coast will take over a year and success is dependent upon a high level of participation from those that use and enjoy the ocean.

Like national parks and roadless areas, marine protected areas are places where fish and other sea life can be given relief from human impacts in order to prosper and expand into high use areas. Marine scientists predict that reduced fishing pressure in marine reserves will produce bigger fish and help maintain healthy reef and kelp habitat. They will also help repopulate fish populations in nearby areas. And since the majority of our ocean shores will still be open to fishing, kelp and abalone harvest and other activities, it's a win-win for fish, marine life and people. What is good for fish is usually good for fishing and I expect this will hold true for marine protected areas.

Naysayers might try to argue that self-policing and existing regulations are enough. They might say that since there is no way to guarantee money for long-term enforcement, we might as well give up before we've even begun. But the reason they can't stop the driving momentum behind this conservation effort is the growing recognition that the status quo, which focuses on restricting the fishing of individual species after population crashes rather than pro-active habitat protection, is not working. As is the case on land, habitat protection is an integral step in ensuring the long-term sustainability of our oceans.

State officials deserve credit for recognizing the need to protect marine habitat in order to ensure the long-term health of California's ocean life and for working to make California a leader in ocean conservation. If our state's marine reserves network can help replenish the entire coastal ecosystem, we will have left a lasting legacy for future generations of people to enjoy and for wildlife to thrive.


Frederick Smith, Jr. is the Executive Director of the Environmental Action Committee of West Marin. He can be contacted at (415) 663-9312 or [email protected]

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