California Cuts Coastal Fishing to Restore Ecosystem

The California Fish and Game Commission votes to establish a network of no-fishing zones. The 29 protected areas, spanning over 20 percent of California's central coast, will limit commercial and recreational fishing in the hope of restoring the coastal ecosystem. It's the largest system of marine-protected areas ever set aside in the U.S. Both environmentalists and the fishing industry take issue with the decision.

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Late last night, the California Fish and Game Commission voted to establish a large network of marine protected areas. In other words, no fishing zones. This group of 29 protected coastal areas will span over 20 percent of California's Central Coast. The protected areas limit both commercial and recreational fishing in hopes of restoring the coastal ecosystem.

John Sepulvado of member station KAZU reports from Monterey.

JOHN SEPULVADO, reporting:

After six years of negotiations, meetings with stakeholders, draft plans, and more negotiations, biologist, fishermen, environmentalists and the California Fish and Game Commission sat down for one last meeting. And after a marathon twelve hours of public testimony and discussion, Fish and Game commissioners like Richard Rogers celebrated the unanimous vote that created over 200 miles of marine protected areas.

Mr. RICHARD ROGERS: (Fish and Game Commission): What we've done is groundbreaking, historical. I don't think there's a state in the union that's done anything even anywhere near this.

SEPULVADO: It's the largest system of marine-protected areas ever set aside in the country. Fishing will be banned completely in about 18 percent of the protected areas. It will be severely limited in much of the rest. Fish populations in the area had dropped dramatically due to over fishing and the protected zones will allow marine stocks to regenerate.

But while the commission seemed enthused with their historic achievement, many at the meeting were disappointed. California's fishing industry was dismayed about the number of prime fishing spots that will be put off limits. And according to Fish and Game estimates, it is expected to cost the industry around $700,000 a year. That means some of the handful of fishermen left on the Central Coast will lose their work.

Mr. TIM MERRICHECK(ph) (Fisherman): I don't want to fight.

SEPULVADO: That's fisherman Tim Merricheck. Right now he is the only fisherman permitted to harvest shrimp in a key environmentally sensitive section of Monterey Bay. Merricheck will also be the last fisherman in the area. Those grounds are now protected. Merricheck says finding new fishing grounds will mean a fight with other fishermen over territory. He says he doesn't have it in him.

Mr. MERRICHECK: The closures would close a vast majority of my income, vast majority. So there's no way I could financially be solvent in fish, no way.

SEPULVADO: Environmentalists didn't seem as defeated, but they were clearly unhappy with the commission's decision. Many said the marine protection areas were drawn in a piecemeal fashion that didn't reflect the science. Conservation supporter Caitlin Gaffey says she's not sold that the new areas cover enough ground to make a positive impact on the underwater eco-system.

Ms. CAITLIN GAFFEY (Conservationist): There are some areas that are really important ecologically, though, where they did a good job, others areas where we're disappointed. They didn't provide enough protection at that site.

SEPULVADO: And at times, the commissioners seemed disappointed and frustrated with each other. Long standing compromises and agreements were abandoned at the last minute, according to commission President Michael Flores. He says Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's reelection effort took center stage over implementing the best policy for fishermen and the coast.

Mr. MICHAEL FLORES (California Fish and Game Department): We still don't know definitively how these things worked.

SEPULVADO: So you're saying that, so you all had a compromise and then tonight that compromise seemed to -

Mr. FLORES: Went out the window.

SEPULVADO: And why did it go out the window?

Mr. FLORES: I think because of the political pressure.

SEPULVADO: The governor immediately praised the commission's vote, calling it a milestone in ocean management. This current policy is expected to be a baby step of sorts after the Fish and Game Commission figures out how to implement the fishing ban and how to enforce it. The governor plans on expanding the reserve network along the entire California coast.

For NPR News, I'm John Sepulvado in Monterey.

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