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As the state Fish & Game Commission prepares to adopt new protected marine areas between Ano Nuevo and Point Arena next week, Kaitilin Gaffney of Ocean Conservancy argues that, budget problems or no, we can't afford not to protect the environment.

By Kaitilin Gaffney

WITH BUDGET WOES in every headline and economic concerns touching every household, some say California can no longer afford to be a leader in conservation: we should shutter our state parks, defer action on climate change and put the brakes on our landmark effort to establish marine protected areas for our oceans. 

Former Monterey Bay area congressman Leon Panetta's signature line is that we govern either by leadership or by crisis. If our leaders have vision and are willing to make tough decisions--crisis can be avoided. If not, crisis will drive policy decisions. So while some argue that the economic downturn is an excuse to abandon our state's conservation values, turn back the clock and wait for environmental collapse before taking action, I believe that, with leadership, great things can be accomplished even in challenging times.

The Marine Life Protection Act (co-authored by Fred Keeley) is an example of leadership. Based on scientific evidence from around the world demonstrating the effectiveness of marine protected areas (MPAs)--underwater refuges where habitats and sealife can recover and thrive--10 years ago, a bipartisan California Legislature passed our nation's first law calling for a statewide network of MPAs. We're now halfway done with this historic effort. Using the state's budget woes as an excuse, opponents have suggested that we quit midstream.

But with the coast and ocean contributing 369,000 jobs and $22 billion to the state's economy, per the National Ocean Economic Program's 2004 figures, marine protection is a critical investment for California. And it's urgently needed: some sealife populations are in decline, and fishery revenues have dropped by half in the past 20 years.

I agree with those who say more funding is needed for conservation efforts. My son is starting kindergarten this year and I sure wish we had more money for public education as well. But instead of keeping my kid out of school, I am going to volunteer in his classroom. When times are tough we can't abandon our community values; instead, we need to get creative, do more with less and work together to keep our priorities on track for better times ahead. Fortunately, that is exactly what is happening with California's new (and proposed) MPAs. Since MPAs were adopted on the Central Coast in 2007, our community has come together to assist with education, monitoring and management. The Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary and the Sanctuary Foundation, our state parks, museums, academic institutions and local organizations like Save Our Shores have all chipped in. Together, they're creating signage, educating school kids and working to improve compliance. Sports fishermen are working with scientists to study the effectiveness of the new protected areas. A lot of the work is staffed by volunteers, and some of it is funded through private donations.

Next week the California Fish and Game Commission will take action on a second section of the coast--adopting additional MPAs between Año Nuevo and Point Arena. Just like on the Central Coast, partners stand ready to help the state implement its new protections and bridge the gap until the economy recovers. I urge the Commission to exercise bold leadership and focus on long-term success. We can't afford any less.

Kaitilin Gaffney is the Pacific Ecosystem Protection Program director for Ocean Conservancy and served on the Marine Life Protection Act's Regional Stakeholder Group for the Central Coast. She notes that Everglades National Park was established in the middle of the Great Depression. 

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