Upstream battle: A proposed Marine Life Protection network aims to protect salmon and other threatened species through restrictions on fishing activities, but critics say run-off pollution and dams onshore do more to harm the species' native habitat.
Marine Protection Areas and FishWise program attack sustainable fishing problem from opposite flanks
By Steve Hahn
As the population continues to expand along the Central Coast of California, a question gnaws on the skulls of marine experts and activists: How can a growing and affluent human population maintain a sustainable relationship with that valuable marine ecosystem just off our shore?
Different answers, some controversial, have come from different sources. California state government has proposed a network of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) that would implement a new slew of restrictions on already frustrated fishing communities. Meanwhile, environmental activists have teamed up with local retailers to increase market demand for sustainable fish products through a program known as FishWise.
The Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA), signed into law by Gov. Gray Davis back in 1999, directed the Department of Fish and Game (DFG) to create a cohesive system of MPAs to protect threatened marine ecosystems from harmful human activities.
The Central Coast, from Pigeon Point to Point Conception, was chosen as the first area of implementation. After years of scientific study, public comment sessions, alternative proposals and protests from the industry group California Fisheries Coalition (CFC), a network linking together 29 different MPAs was finally selected by the California Fish and Game Commission.
Only 8 percent of the protected areas would be completely closed off to fishing activities, while the rest would prohibit specific fishing methods or the exploitation of certain species. The proposal is making its way through the California Environmental Quality Act review and must be greenlighted by a Blue Ribbon Task Force before it is implemented.
B>ill Romenelli, a representative for the DFG, believes the newly proposed MPA network, which had previously been a "hodgepodge" of disconnected reserves and conservation areas, will be more effective in protecting coastal waters by recognizing the marine ecosystem as an interconnected structure with fish populations passing back and forth between reserves and unregulated waters.
"This network that has been proposed is the first of its kind in our state or, really, our country," he says. "It's going to be a precedent-setting model for how we protect the coast both here and across the entire country."
The CFC, however, has repeatedly expressed concerns that the MLPA process is a narrow solution unfairly burdening commercial and recreational fishers, who have already adopted sustainable fishing methods and complied with an array of state and federal regulations.
While the MPAs don't extend past the coastline, fish populations and their habitats are often adversely affected by human activities onshore. To cite a famous example, when rivers are dammed to provide irrigation water for farmers, salmon spawning grounds are either destroyed or made inaccessible to the adult fish. This results in a collapse of the salmon population and the salmon fishing season is therefore trimmed by the government and, in particularly bad years, a weekly quota is implemented on fishers to prevent further harm.
Vern Goehring, manager of the CFC, alleges that the staff members putting together the current proposal were explicitly told to overlook onshore issues, which also include run-off pollution and increased coastal development, when considering implementation of the new MPA network.
"If you don't factor those in," Goehring warns, "we will likely be in a situation where fishing is excessively restricted to make up for the impact of water quality issues that are not being adequately addressed."
Romenelli says the Fish and Game Commission agrees that regulating pollution run-off from onshore is one of the weaknesses of the Central Coast MLPA and says it will be analyzed more closely when the process moves north to Mendocino and San Francisco.
Goehring also claims that recent scientific studies have found fish populations off California's coasts, including the lingcod and rock cod fisheries, recovering since new regulations had been imposed and that the beneficial effects of current restrictions were overlooked in the Fish and Game Commission's proposal.
While the MPA network hopes to maintain a stable fish population by preserving marine habitats and restricting the commercial and recreational fish market's supply, FishWise is focusing on the manipulation of market demand.
The program, started by two graduate students in ocean studies at UCSC, rates fish in participating stores based on the amount of accidental bycatch, the effect of capture on the marine habitat, the abundance of the species, and the amount of mercury and PCB in the fish. Fish are labeled green, yellow or red based on these factors.
Tobias Aguirre, executive director of FishWise, believes consumers have a crucial role to play in supporting sustainable fishing.
"By having clear scientific information they are empowered to make informed choices," he says.
Teresa Ish, co-founder of FishWise, hopes the program will create an incentive for commercial fishermen who would otherwise be tempted to use cheap but destructive methods of fish capture to switch over to more-habitat-friendly techniques.
"There are some fishermen out there who are very conservation-minded," she says. "I think that by supporting sustainable fishing you are also supporting fishermen who get it, who get that it's not just what you can pick out of the ocean today, it's about what you can pick out in the long-term."
Ish and Aguirre both agree that their program is only one piece of the sustainable fishing puzzle and express their support for more protected zones and other efforts to maintain stable fisheries.
However, Mike Stiller, president of a local commercial fishing group representing 68 fishermen and businesses, says we must ultimately arrive at a holistic solution that looks beyond only regulating fishing and considers the interconnected ecosystems on and off our shore.
"I don't care what you're fishing," he says. "If you can't prove that your populations are sustainable and can handle the type of harvesting you're doing on them, and that includes not just the fishing issues, but the environmental issues and the habitat issues, it's not going to be here in 10 years."
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