Southern California’s free-diving community united on Thursday evening, July 16, for the Watermen’s Alliance Santa Barbara Social in order to discuss the future of the sport, especially the looming effects of the Marine Life Protection Act. The Santa Barbara Maritime Museum served as a melting pot for some of the biggest names in spear fishing, from outspoken conservationist and underwater videographer Dr. Terry Maas, to world-record-holding spear fisherman Bill Ernst.
Although the mood was light at the social gathering, the topic of the Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) was hotly discussed by individuals who have spent their lives at the water’s edge. “This is a fishing/no fishing law which is trying to cure the ocean’s ills by restricting [noncommercial] fisherman, when there are much greater influences impacting the marine environment,” Maas said.
The Marine Life Protection Act is a state law that calls for redesigning and possibly expanding California’s system of marine reserves, parks, and conservation areas. Spear fishermen have very mixed feelings about the MLPA, as free-diving groups have always promoted conservation and selective fishing, but will no longer be able to fish in the same areas. “Spear fishermen have an interest in marine reserves, we think that they have great value,” Maas said. “We need to balance our needs as fishermen and manage the proposed closure areas, which is a difficult proposition.”
The event featured tables set up by various free-diving and conservationist organizations. One, known as CDOCS, acts as an ocean stewardship program, encouraging fishers to take care of the marine world that has taken such good care of them. “We encourage people to think about their impact,” said CDOCS founder Mike Bowling. “We see a lot of things like party balloons and grocery bags in the water, and it doesn’t take much for people to just pick up a few things before or after a dive.”
Attendees watched several underwater films, most of them by Maas, some shot in the waters surrounding the Channel Islands, where he and his friends hunted white sea bass in the kelp forest. Also screened was an episode of Huell Howser’s television program California Gold, in which Howser met with Ernst, holder of the world record for the largest white sea bass ever caught. Although Ernst may strike fear into California’s fish population, he feels that protecting sea life is of the utmost importance, but that the MLPA is unsatisfactory. “I think that we should cut out the biggest problem first, which is commercial fishing,” Ernst said. “What we do is very selective; it doesn’t make sense to restrict a group that makes such a small impact.”