On Dec. 15, the California Fish and Game Commission adopted regulations to institute a number of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) in Southern California as part of a broad-reaching plan of action known as the Marine Life Protection Act, designed primarily to protect and enhance fish stocks off the California coast.

The MPA theory is based on habitat protection over species-specific closures and has been implemented, in one form or another, in various places throughout the country and around the world.

However, here in regional waters, the politics surrounding the MLPA have been a hotbed of controversy making local recreational fishermen, especially kayakers, less than pleased. And beyond these sport-fishermen who are now being aced out of their favorite spots, small businessmen who make their living running fishing trips say they are also feeling the burn of the commission’s decision to cordon off about 187 square miles of area that can no longer be fished.

“We find it extremely concerning that anglers, who are the original conservationists, are being taken off the water through a seriously flawed process, while the real threats to the health of our ocean, such as contaminated storm-water runoff and industrial pollutants, are allowed to continue unabated,” said Dan Wolford, science director for the Coastside Fishing Club.

For many, the process of arriving at these closures has been as disturbing as the closures themselves. Currently, there is much activity, including lawsuits aimed at putting the brakes on the MPAs. Member organizations of the Partnership for Sustainable Oceans (PSO), which represents California’s recreational fishing and boating community, have recently filed a lawsuit in San Diego County Superior Court seeking to set aside regulations established by the California Department of Fish and Game.

The sentiment amongst many MLPA detractors is that the process was being forced upon them and they would have to accept the new rules come what may.

“I see it as just another in a series of ill conceived and onerous infringements upon the public’s right to outdoor access and recreation,” said longtime local fisherman Richard Schaeffer. “I think it is obvious that there are better ways to accomplish [their objectives], at the same time, leaving the ocean open to fishing and other sporting activities.”

Bob Fletcher, former president of the Sportfishing Association of California, claimed, “From the outset, it was clear that the MLPA process was set up to reach a predetermined outcome under the fiction of an allegedly open and transparent process. In a rush to establish regulations based on political timelines and a pre-determined agenda, the Fish and Game Commission has ignored the legal requirements it must follow.”

These “requirements” are the heart of what is sure to be a good deal of legal battling from here on in. In the last meeting before the decision to implement the MPAs, PSO attorney David Cook told the commission at a packed meeting that there are holes in how the MLPA is being executed.

“The statutes that are being relied upon have either not been complied with or they don’t reach the full force of these regulations that are being adopted,” Cook said.

Cook also made mention of certain information not being available to certain stakeholders and the public. His fellow attorney, Marvin Garrett, was far more confrontational when he accused the Blue Ribbon Task Force [the liaison organization for the Department of Fish and Game] of having substantive meetings in secret in violation of requirements.

“After reviewing thousands of documents, it is clear the process and decision making were hijacked by the Blue Ribbon Task Force,” said Garrett.

Garrett claimed they have emails that indicate members of the Blue Ribbon Task Force were communicating amongst themselves about MLPA-related issues in an inappropriate way.

“The process should be entirely public and open,” Garrett said. “When you carve out a small part that is private and secret where the decision-making takes place, it emasculates the entire process,”

The chairmen and various members of the task force are on record denying that such behavior occurred.

Some fishermen, like Shaeffer, believe there are alternatives that would make both sides satisfied.

“Adding structure to the sea bottom is another way to increase habitat and thereby fish populations,” Shaeffer said. “I remember in 1967 or ‘68, barges with huge cranes dropped old railroad cars into the waters surrounding Venice Pier. As I recall, at least a dozen boxcars were dropped onto the sea floor.

“Today, environmentalists gasp at the idea of such artificial reefs. They fret over the ‘unnaturalness’ of man-made habitat. Well here’s a flash, the fish don’t care whether or not the structure is ‘natural’ – as any diver knows, fish and crustaceans abound around underwater structure such as wrecks or reefs, natural or not.”

Now that there is a new governor at the helm of the state, local fishermen say they are hopeful that the MLPA will be reexamined and they will have another chance to be heard. In the meantime, members of the Blue Ribbon Task Force, environmental advocacy groups like Heal the Bay, and the Department of Fish and Game are excited to enact what they believe is a very prudent manner in which to marry the needs and wants of human beings with the protection and enrichment of marine life.

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