Marine Protected Areas decision delayed

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The challenge for the task force in charge of designating the areas is to balance the concerns of the billion-dollar fishing industry with the ecological impact of a science not easily measured.

By Melonie Magruder / Special to The Malibu Times

The California Fish and Game Department’s Blue Ribbon Task Force has postponed a decision on placing Marine Protected Areas along the Southern California coastline, including a popular fishing area off Point Dume.

During the past several months, the task force has held meetings up and down the coast to listen to public commentary on three proposed plans for implementing the 1997 Marine Life Protection Act and weigh public concerns against findings by its science advisory team.

Representatives of the state’s fishing industry claim that commercial and recreational interests will be severely impacted economically by restrictions on coastal activities, and that the science doesn’t support broad stroke maps that restrict activity.

Environmental groups, such as the nonprofit Heal the Bay, say that protected areas are essential to replenish diversity of marine species, from kelp to rockfish.

Sarah Sikich, Coastal Resources director for Heal the Bay, said the organization supports the Marine Protected Area (MPA) guidelines developed by scientists for areas off Malibu and would like to see them even extended a bit.

“The area of Submarine Canyon goes from Big Dume through Little Dume and houses a lot of deep water species,” Sikich said. “The upwelling there [a process in which cold water rises to the surface from ocean depths] brings in a lot of nutrients that support all of Santa Monica Bay. I think it’s important to see that protected area extend a little farther east to the shallower reefs and the fish you find there.”

The challenge for the task force-and the reason for the delay in making a decision-is to balance the concerns of a robust industry that brings billions of dollars to the state annually with the ecological impact of a science not easily measured. Fish don’t stay in one place waiting to be counted.

Merit McCrea is a marine biologist with UC Santa Barbara, as well as owns and operates fishing party boats. He said the problem with the conservationists’ proposal is that a map can “look good,” covering a lot of area, but that the result doesn’t optimize species protection.

“You want to capture 90 percent of an area’s species in an MPA,” McCrea said. “For example, at Laguna Beach there is a healthy kelp forest that is not visible from aerial surveys because it doesn’t rise up to a surface canopy. So it wasn’t credited with being a ‘robust habitat.’ But fishermen know what’s actually out there because they fish it every day.”

While the difference of covered areas in the three proposals could amount to as little as 4 percent in an MPA, McCrea said the cumulative effect could be huge, particularly in the area east of Little Dume.

“East of Little Dume is calm water that attracts highly mobile species like yellowtail and bonito,” McCrea said. “An MPA there would make them inaccessible to the smaller fishermen like kayakers and spear fishers. If you place the MPA north of Zuma, you will get the same habitat protection but without the big socio-economic costs.”

Greg Helms of Ocean Conservancy points out that proposed protected areas would restrict consumptive activity in only between 12 percent and 16 percent of coastal waters.

“We believe that the devastating numbers quoted by the fishing industry are unlikely to materialize,” Helms said. “When you look at results after MPAs were imposed around the Channel Islands, numbers and diversity increased, along with successful fishing activity outside of the MPAs.”

The five-member task force held lengthy meetings with regional stakeholders and heard extensive public commentary in Long Beach last week. They await further review from the science advisory team that continues to narrow and define proposed protected areas.

“One thing we don’t want to do is make decisions when we’re not prepared to do it,” task force Chairwoman Catherine Reheis-Boyd said.

The task force has said they expect to meet again in the Los Angeles area in mid-November.