Whether you agree with it or not, there is no denying that Mother Earth-minded policy making scored a major victory in Santa Barbara this week. Bringing to a close nearly three years of meetings, controversy, and heated horse trading of underwater areas, the California State Fish and Game Commission narrowly approved a sweeping and historic plan for preservation in waters off the coast of Southern California.
Carrying out the mandate of 1999’s Marine Life Protection (MLP) Act, the governor-appointed, five-member commission voted 3-2 on Thursday afternoon in favor of a carefully crafted array of 36 Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) along select spots of the coastline between Point Conception and the Mexican border that, through various degrees of both recreational and commercial fishing restrictions, paves the way for the protection of nearly 400 square miles of prime open ocean real estate in perpetuity. “There is no denying that our future generations will be grateful for what happened here today,” predicted Santa Barbara Channelkeeper’s Marine Programs director Mike Sheehy shortly before the fateful votes were cast.
Held on the second floor of Hotel Mar Monte across the street from the sands of East Beach, the meeting — which enjoyed a standing-room-only mix of nature lovers, conservationists, elected officials, scientists, and fishermen of all ilk from throughout Southern California — was a grueling grind of public comment, staff presentations and, ultimately, the commission’s heartfelt deliberations on an issue that aims to do the near impossible: to meaningfully protect and preserve our state’s underwater resources without striking a deeply damaging blow to the vast and varied heritage of fishing in Southern California.
To that end, the commission opted to approve a series of MPAs known officially as the Integrated Plan Alternative (IPA), a mash-up conceived by the Blue Ribbon Task Force (a Schwarzenegger-appointed, seven-member committee that helped steer the Southern California portion of the MLP visioning process) that borrows from three different array proposals floated during the painstakingly protracted stakeholder input period. Championed by Fish and Game staffers as the best possible compromise between myriad interests and the biological bottom line, the IPA was not the first choice for many of the enviros in the room while also being (for obvious reasons) a bitter pill to swallow for the majority of the fishing folks, both commercial and recreational, in attendance.
In the end, the commission — a majority of which expressed certain amounts of apprehension about the IPA, the potential long-term economic impacts it will have on people who make a living out at sea, and the financial difficulties the state will face in actually implementing it — voted to approve despite the strong likelihood that the legality of their decision will be challenged via a lawsuit in the months ahead. (In fact, a trio of attorneys representing the pro-fishing organization Partnership for Sustainable Oceans presented information on Thursday alleging that not only was the California Environmental Quality Act violated during the MPA process but that the Blue Ribbon Task Force met on more than one occasion in “private and secret,” and thus illegal, ways to hash out the terms of the IPA.) Commissioners Dan Richards and Jim Kellogg, for the above reasons, voted against the plan.
Santa Barbara-specific components of the now approved Marine Protected Areas Plan are:
- A State Marine Reserve for the waters surrounding Pt. Conception, including Cojo Reef, such that no fishing of any kind is allowed
- A State Marine Reserve for waters in and around Campus Point in Goleta, from Ellwood Beach to the west and Poles to the east, such that no fishing of any kind is allowed
- A State Marine Conservation Area for Naples Reef off the Gaviota Coast that prohibits the take of all living sea creatures except for recreational-only spearfishing of certain fish like the Pacific bonito and white seabass. Commercial kelp harvesting is also okay
- State Marine Conservation Area for Kashtayit (near Gaviota State Park) that restricts fishing of all kinds save for recreational finfish fishing and shellfishing. (Mussels and rock scallop harvests are, however, prohibited.) Recreational kelp hand harvests will also be permitted
- A State Marine Conservation Area for the Goleta Slough that outlaws all fishing but allows for a certain amount of dredging, habitat restoration, and assorted other maintenance efforts
- A State Marine Reserve for the Begg Rock area off San Nicholas Island such that any and all fishing is prohibited.
- The lifting of the longtime State Conservation area offshore of Refugio State Park.
Also of note, no protected area was created for the Carpinteria Reef area.