State Considers Doubling Size of SoCal's Underwater Reserves

In an effort to revive damaged ocean habitats along the California coast, the state is considering a proposal to nearly double the size of its south coast Marine Protection Areas, underwater parks where commercial and sport fishing is off limits.

The plan includes two controversial areas, one at Point Dume near Malibu and another at Point Vicente near San Pedro, both of which are hotspots for fishing.

The California Fish and Game Commission will vote Wednesday on the plan to establish 48 MPAs in the South Coast Study Region. That zone, which extends from Point Conception to the Mexican border, would see its protected areas grow from 182 square miles to 350 square miles.

A diver tries to rescue a horn shark from a fishing net.

"We’ve seen decades of decline in fish populations and marine life," said Sarah Sikich, coastal resources director for Heal the Bay, which has advocated strongly for the most comprehensive of the protection plans on the table.

Sikich said the vote comes at a crucial time for the region’s marine life and commercial fishery, as declines in fish populations have hit commercial fishing revenues in Los Angeles County hard over the last 30 years. The federal Pacific Fishery Management Council has estimated that the population of a popular rockfish, cowcod, has declined to below 20 percent of its original population, and could be as low as 4 percent.

The proposed MPAs are the product of the 1999 Marine Life Protection Act, which set in motion a process to evaluate the state’s existing protections for marine life and design new areas spanning the entire state coastline.

If passed, the commission will likely designate a grace period of up to six months to educate the public about the new reserves. A five-year study period will follow to gather data about whether or not the MPAs are working.

Not everyone is happy with the plan or the process of selecting the MPAs. Bob Osborn, a fishery consultant with United Anglers of Southern California, participated as a stakeholder in the planning process. He said the plan was rushed by the seven members of the Blue Ribbon Task Force in charge of finalizing the South Coast Study Region plan in order to complete it before Gov. Schwarzenegger leaves office. In some cases, conservation lost to politics, he said.

"There is a large important constituency in this process that I don’t think got a good look. Kids," Osborn added.

He said the plan will eliminate opportunities for many children to experience ocean fishing. His group takes more than 6,000 underprivileged teens fishing each year at public access sites that he said will be closed under the new plan.

Osborn said the plan also does not take into account the cost of policing the new regions where fishing will be banned. "If you don’t enforce the MPAs, it is harmful to the environment to have them, because you’re really creating a poacher’s paradise," he said.

But Heal the Bay’s Sarah Sikich said the actual size of the protected area is rather modest. "We’re only talking about approximately 7 percent of the California coastline having no fishing," she said.

But she said the interconnectivity of the reserves is a landmark feature. "Nowhere have we seen a network of protected areas like this."

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