In the beginning of December, local environmental protection groups such as Heal the Bay and the Baykeeper were pleased to hear that a program they have been participating in, designed to protect an array of marine species, has been extended down the coast from Point Conception to San Diego.

The California Fish and Game Commission announced plans December 6th to create Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) in Southern California in step with zones that have already been successfully established in Central California.

“With our announcement today we have finalized the order of the five Marine Life Protection Act study regions that will cover California’s coast,” said state secretary for resources Mike Chrisman after the announcement. “In many ways this is a stage that some people never believed we could reach.

“More importantly, today’s announcement represents a milestone that we have achieved together — scientists, fishermen, elected officials and marine life environmentalists.”

The concept of creating specified areas as safe havens for animals differs from limit impositions and other regulations tar- geting individual marine species and is thought to be more effective, based on scientific data done in protected areas such as Florida, New Zealand and other marine environments.

“[Marine Protected Areas] take an ecosystem-based approach by protecting marine habitats and the marine life that lives within those habitats,” states an explanation on the Heal the Bay Web site. “MPAs, and specifically marine reserves, protect sea life and their underwater homes in a way that regulations focused on one or two species cannot.

“By prohibiting or restricting fishing in certain areas of the sea, localized marine creatures within each MPA are given refuge.”

The program is indicative of new attitudes being developed in the scientific community aimed at protecting endangered marine life and enriching fisheries all at the same time. It also operates in a more inclusive way, employing all the players in the scenario, from commercial fishermen to environmental protection groups, to meet and discuss what’s best for everyone.

The Marine Protected Areas are proving to be an intriguing experiment, for they foster safe living conditions, which scientists have found produce bigger fish, stronger reproduction numbers and density, which manifests itself in larger stocks.

“There have been lots and lots of studies done by marine biologists that have examined the home-ranges of species,” said Sarah Abramson, director of coastal resources at Heal the Bay in Santa Monica. “Certain species really keep themselves to a small habitat, especially in areas like kelp forests or rocky habitats where there’s an actual three- dimensional structure that provides protection.”

After identifying and cordoning off these particular habitats that are conducive to quality marine life, the hope is that sailors, scuba divers and the non-invasive marine enthusiast will benefit, with the ability to witness more marine life enjoying a healthier ecosystem.

At the same time fisherman will reap the benefits as well. The strong food-rich safe environment eventually acts as a fishery that yields stock back into the ocean.

In California, the areas of Los Angeles, Orange, and San Diego counties account for over half the recreational fishing activity in the state. It’s for this reason that the program is coming down the coast to become established.

The law mandates that by 2011 these Marine Protected Areas will be established down the entire coast of California.

The next step in the process will be to establish a “regional stakeholder” group incorporating representatives from the many interested parties. The stakeholders, who will hail from a myriad of marine-related industries, including fishing groups, conservationists and tourism industry representatives, will meet and discuss where the specific protected areas should be located.

In addition to building the stakeholder group, scientists will be studying the region and making recommendations.

And as these entities form and move forward, the marching order is for some sort of development to occur within the next year that will get the ball rolling.

“We’re not sure how they’re going to move forward,” said Abramson. “We just know something will be happening in 2008.”