The Politics of Marine Conservation

Channel Islands
Paul Wellman (file)

During the past 10-plus years, the California planning process to designate marine protected areas (MPAs) has included the use of professional facilitators, stakeholder-based activities, social and physical scientists with expertise in diverse disciplines, consultants and other advisors, and resources agency personnel. The state process of planning marine reserves has cost tens of millions of dollars and it has been difficult, with the economic interests of fishers often running up against the value of protecting marine life from the impacts of human activities.

Michael McGinnis

There are many here among us who will not soon forget the process of designating reserves within the national sanctuary offshore Santa Barbara. In 1999, three advisory groups were established by the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary (CINMS), and the California Department of Fish and Game, to consider the designation of MPAs for the marine area six nautical miles offshore five northern Channel Islands: Santa Barbara, Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, and San Miguel Islands. The MPA planning effort for the CINMS included a Marine Reserve Work Group (MRWG), a Science Advisory Panel, and Socioeconomic Panel.

The Marine Reserve Working Group comprised 17 members who were purported to represent a wide diversity of interests and values within the region. The MRWG included representatives from state and federal resource agencies, user groups (e.g., commercial and recreational fishers), local and national environmental organizations, and an academic. I was part of the MRWG process. We met from July 1999 to May 2001.

The group represented the first collaborative effort to develop and establish no-take MPAs in California, and included the use of two paid professional mediators. The funds for this consensus-based planning effort came from the state and federal resource agencies.

The state’s initial planning process aroused significant media attention focused on the controversy between scientists and diverse interests. The 16-member Science Advisory Panel developed recommendations for MPA designs that included setting aside 30-50 percent of the entire sanctuary. Conflict among the members of the Marine Reserve Working Group over the scientific recommendations was intense.

Even after months of public debate and informal negotiation, the members of the Marine Reserve Working Group failed to reach consensus on the scientific recommendations, and in May, 2001, the MRWG was disbanded. The MRWG members representing commercial fishers did not support the use of MPAs as a fishery management tool and did not support an expanded role of the CINMS to manage fishers in the sanctuary. Recreational fishers on the MRWG did not support the use of MPAs either and were in favor of maintaining access to fishing areas located in the eastern waters of the CINMS, including parts of Anacapa and Santa Cruz islands in close proximity to Ventura Harbor. Many recreational and commercial fishers who use the islands also use Ventura Harbor.

Based on statutory requirements for the state, California Department of Fish and Game staff worked with federal resource agencies to finalize a recommendation for a preferred alternative MPA network designation for state waters. In October 2002, the CDFG Commission adopted regulations to create MPAs within the nearshore waters of the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary. The MPA design emphasized the importance of establishing no-take marine reserves. The federal government expanded the MPA network into the sanctuary’s deeper waters (three to six nautical miles) in 2006 and 2007.

Within the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary, the entire MPA network consists of 11 marine reserves where all take and harvest is prohibited, and two marine conservation areas that allow limited take of lobster and pelagic fish. This MPA network encompasses 241 square nautical miles (318 square miles), making it the largest network off the continental U.S.

In 2004, the California Natural Resources Agency, Fish and Game, and the Legacy Fund Foundation launched a renewed effort to implement the Marine Life Protection Act with a new regional approach to collaborative planning. The MLPA Initiative established a Blue Ribbon Task Force, together with a Master Plan Science Advisory Team and a Regional Stakeholder Group, to oversee the completion of several objectives. The plan identified specific study regions with a goal of completing the statewide planning process by late 2011:

• Central Coast study region (Pigeon Point to Point Conception) (regulations effective September 2007);

• North Central Coast study region (Alder Creek near Point Arena to Pigeon Point) (regulations effective May 2010);

• South Coast study region (Point Conception to the California/Mexico border) (regulations will go into effect on October 2011);

• North coast study region (California/Oregon border to Alder Creek near Point Arena) (planning process is underway as of July 2011); and

• San Francisco Bay study region (waters within San Francisco Bay, from the Golden Gate Bridge northeast to Carquinez Bridge) (options under development).

Many of the same stakeholders and scientists were involved in both the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary and South Coast planning efforts.

It is interesting to compare the results or outcomes of the planning effort for the CINMS and these other regional planning efforts established by the state. In contrast to the CINMS process, in other regions the state emphasized the designation of conservation areas that allow some type of fishing or use. The table shows the dramatic decline in the designation of no-take MPAs by the state, as indicated by the 21 percent no-take MPA network created for the CINMS marine areas, compared to 4.9 percent for the South Coast study region, as adopted in December 2010 by the California Department of Fish and Game Commission.

The South Coast planning process, which included the marine areas offshore Santa Barbara, concluded after two years of negotiation among 64 stakeholders. The CDFG Commission adopted regulations to set aside an additional 187 square miles or 8 percent of the state waters off the South Coast. (The existing MPAs around the northern Channel Islands encompass 168 square miles and 7 percent of state waters in the study region). When compared to the level of biodiversity protection provided by MPAs within the CINMS, there are few no-take MPAs designated within the state marine areas off the south coastal region’s mainland. Coastal mainland reserves often allow some type of fishing activity. There is currently no deep water marine area protected in MPAs offshore California. Few birds, mammals, and pelagic species are protected by the designated MPA networks in state waters off the coastal mainland.

For the future, it is important that we carefully monitor the results of the MPAs that have been established offshore California and our region. We should remain hopeful but pessimistic about the outcome of these planning efforts. With respect to the marine areas protected offshore of the South Coast, the true test is whether or not enough marine habitat has been protected to ensure that marine life can be sustained.


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