Environmentalists Hail, Fishermen Wary of Marine Protection Zones

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Environmentalists are hailing Orange County’s new sea-life protection zones, which came into effect this month, as a milestone in protecting ocean ecosystems, and are encouraging fishermen to team with scientists on research.

The protected marine areas provide refuges for fish and other sea creatures to regenerate and are “a very constructive thing for the future of our marine habitats,” said Garry Brown, founder and CEO of Orange County Coastkeeper.

Many local fishermen, however, are still upset over how the zones were developed and question the need for stringent regulations in some of the areas that are now protected.

“Just shutting things down, that’s not addressing the real issues,” said Chris Pica, a sportfishing captain in Dana Point. “It’s not a small number of people dependent” on the local fishing industry, he added. “Not at all.”

Seven marine protected areas in Orange County came into effect at the beginning of the month, a byproduct of the state Marine Life Protection Act, or MLPA, which was passed in 1999. The protected areas are Bolsa Bay and the Bolsa Chica wetlands in Huntington Beach, Upper Newport Bay in Newport Beach, and coastal waters from Corona del Mar past Laguna Beach to Dana Point.

Environmentalists believe the zones, which are enforced by wardens of the state Department of Fish and Game, are crucial to protecting fish populations.

“There’s an intrinsic value in protected areas, not unlike what we’ve decided about protecting Yosemite or any other national parks or wilderness areas,” said Joe Geever, water programs manager for the Surfrider Foundation.

“We did that because hunters like Teddy Roosevelt decided that there’s a value in protecting these areas in their natural state. That’s actually what the MLPA was about.”

In the four weeks since the zones came into effect, fishermen say many in their ranks are still not sure where the boundaries lie.

“At this point, there’s a tremendous amount of confusion,” said John Gaebel of the United Anglers of Southern California, which has filed a lawsuit seeking to repeal the protected areas.

Geever, however, said he wasn’t aware of any such confusion and that his organization will continue to distribute maps at docks and marine hardware stores.

“Nobody wants to see law-abiding fishermen get in trouble,” said Geever.

Geever and other environmentalists are hoping that fishermen will collaborate with researchers on monitoring fish populations in the new zones.

Yet many fishermen, who feel the entire process of developing the zones was stacked against them, are wary of any collaboration.

“It’s kind of like they’re taking away a freedom from us,” said Pica. “It’s not just a sport. It’s a lifestyle.”

The fishermen say they understand that marine ecosystems need protection but disagree with the zones’ emphasis on fishing as opposed to pollution.

“There’s not really an issue with overfishing,” Pica said. Sport fishermen often keep only what they can take home for dinner and release the rest back into the water, he said.

“We are environmentalists here. It’s how we make our living. So we want healthy fish populations. We just want it done in the right manner,” Pica said.

But “the decision was made long before we got there,” said Gaebel.

Geever said fishermen were very involved in the process and some environmental advocates thought too much weight was given to the fishing community’s concerns.

“I think that there were some environmentalists that felt like they hadn’t chosen the best places for the [marine protected areas] because of that,” he said.

Geever said he wants to collaborate with fishermen on reducing pollution along the coast, including potentially merging pollution-free zones with current protected marine areas. He emphasized, however, that pollution is just one of many factors that harm sea life.

“Is it having an impact? Yes, and we want to work with fisherman to address that impact.” But, he added, “it’s not the sole cause.”

If the two groups would work together to keep track of the number and types of fish in a given area over time, Geever said, the data could lead to protected zones being reduced in size and thus reopen some areas to fishing.

“This is a brand-new set of scientific information that will help the managers get fishery management tools right,” he said. “It’s our hope that once these marine reserves show the benefits we think they will,” the state government “will be able to relax some of the restrictions that are on fisheries now.”

The collaboration could also generate additional income for fishermen, Geever added.

But at this point, many fishermen are wary of how the information will be used.

“There’s a distinct lack of trust at this point of where it’s going, particularly in light of what’s happened so far,” said Gaebel. “We believe that this is only the first shot across the bow. There will be every effort to increase the borders.”

Geever, however, points out that the data would be evaluated by the Department of Fish and Game, and changes likely would come about through a transparent and public procedure.

“I’m sure there will be some public process behind that,” he said. “But the data is what it is, and the more fishermen are involved in gathering it, then the more they can trust the data Fish and Game are working with.”

“It’s in everybody’s interest to get this data right.”

You can reach Nick Gerda at ngerda@gmail.com, and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/nicholasgerda.

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