If the calm seas and cool heads Saturday morning at Naples Reef were any indication, the bitter fighting between environmentalists, lawmakers, and fishing people over Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) along the Santa Barbara coast may finally be simmering down. Implemented in January 2012, the MPAs created new recreational and commercial fishing regulations for 186 square miles of Southern California ocean, which was heralded by conservation groups as a way to protect fragile marine ecosystems but vigorously contested by those who depend on the aquatic resources for their livelihoods.
This weekend, three boats representing three different stakeholder groups and part of an official MPA collaborative motored out to the chilly but crystal-clear waters of Naples in an event both symbolic and practical. Ben Pitterle with Channelkeeper and Captain David Bacon, who owns and runs WaveWalker Charters and Hook, Line & Sinker Fishing Center, said the idea is to move past the head butting and offer sanctioned and subsidized trips to the now-restricted areas in the name of education and continuing dialogue. Dive club members explored the undulating kelp beds sprinkled with bright-orange Garibaldi and deep-purple urchins, while the fishing boat used underwater cameras to get a new perspective on the teeming grounds. Dolphins and sea lions chased bait balls of mackerel nearby.
Pitterle and Bacon said they and their colleagues want to avoid the public disconnect that may come from limiting access to the pockets of protection. “We want to get people interested,” Bacon said, pointing to eco-tourism opportunities and the upcoming events in town for World Oceans Day. “There were concerns that the MPAs created no-man’s lands,” Pitterle noted, “but we want to help people enjoy experiences that will create stewardship.” While much of the tension has been washed away, Bacon went on, “My community sacrificed a tremendous amount for MPAs to exist. We want that recognized.” He also said his sportfishing constituency could benefit from the info such trips offer, as where boats are and aren’t allowed to fish is not obvious on the open sea.
This Saturday, June 7, West Beach will host the Santa Barbara Ocean Festival to commemorate 10 years of protection of the Channel Islands, which have their own MPAs that have boosted biomass and habitat health. There will also be discounted kayak tours of Naples Reef on June 7 and 8 and reduced-cost fishing trips July 12.