United Front

Local interests are getting closer to a plan to appease the gods of Marine Life Protection


North Coast study region. Courtesy of Peter Nelson
  • North Coast study region. Courtesy of Peter Nelson

If anyone can join fishing forces with enviro forces and come up with a communal yell, it's the North Coast tri-county region of Del Norte, Humboldt and Mendocino. That's what Betsy Watson says. But, even so, nobody says it's easy.

Watson, a Humboldt State University sociology professor, is facilitating meetings of a working group that's trying to come up with a single proposal for marine protected areas to submit to the decision-makers in the Marine Life Protection Act Initiative.

The MLPAI machine -- a public-private thing, under the official auspices of the California Department of Fish and Game with private foundation funding -- has been working its way along the California coast, creating a network of reserves in state-governed coastal waters in which to protect a variety of marine ecosystems, as required by the MLPA. It's stirred up some public resentment along the way, with fishermen and other marine resources collectors, including tribes, feeling disenfranchised in some regions.

News of these hard feelings have reached north, and the Tri-County Working Group was formed to offset potential divisiveness among local interests and unite the locals behind a single proposal. They're nearing the end, and some players interviewed this week say they believe they will pull off the amazing: one map showing where they've agreed marine protected areas ought and ought not to go.

"The task is to try to balance the economics and environmental considerations, which is nothing new to those of us living and working in the Tri-County area," said Watson on Tuesday by e-mail. "In fact, it is so usual that in this process it seems that we are getting very good at working on this balancing act. ... The thing that is working well for us is taking a whole-community perspective. This gives us things like commercial fishing folk insisting that Native traditional activities be respected and Baykeeper and Ocean Conservancy insisting on safety zones for fishing boats."

The group has met four times and has one more session to go before it has to submit a proposal to the decision-makers. According to some off-the-record reports, the group nearly disintegrated recently, but pulled back together.

One big debate has been over the scientific guidelines for mapping out Marine Protected Areas. In other regions, the MLPAI has used the guidelines established by its Science Advisory Team, which suggest that MPAs should be about nine square miles in size and from 31 to 62 miles apart from each other, in order to best enable species' larvae to pass from one reserve to the other. Many in the Tri-County Working Group believe the guidelines need to be flexible to accommodate the North Coast's particular layout, said some players interviewed this week. One participant, Humboldt Bay Harbor, Recreation and Conservation District Commissioner Patrick Higgins, went further, suggesting that the actual science behind the established guidelines is bunk.

"I'm advancing the position that the currents here are different," said Higgins by phone on Monday. He explained that the currents on the North Coast likely have a different effect on larval dispersal than currents elsewhere, thus bringing into question the spacing guidelines.

In a Dec. 20 letter to a member of the Science Advisory Team's staff, Higgins warned that if the science behind the guidelines is determined to be flawed, "you can expect the North Coast region to challenge the outcome by every means possible."

Peter Nelson, whom the Harbor District hired to advise the working group on science matters, said Tuesday that most of the group isn't questioning the science behind the guidelines so much as the application of the guidelines. "One of our big challenges is to make the argument that [the MLPA decision-makers] should accept a 70-miles-odd distance" from the southernmost marine reserve at Punta Gorda to Reading Rock in the north, rather than the outer accepted limit of 60 miles, he said.

On the North Coast, Nelson said, it would be hard to meet the MLPA mission to include every marine habitat possible in a reserve and to repeat that collection of habitats from one reserve to the next, within the prescribed distance, without disrupting the fishing economy of the region and potentially putting fishermen in physical danger.

Reading Rock, Nelson explained, is one of the rare deep reefs in the region. Because of that, it will certainly be recommended for a reserve, Nelson said; that was one concession that the fishermen in the group have had to make. Under the MLPA, the next likely candidates could be the rocky offshore areas south off Patrick's Point, Trinidad Head, False Cape and Punta Gorda. Punta Gorda already has a reserve, which likely would be expanded. The working group, said Nelson, might end up seeking to keep the rocky areas off Trinidad Head, False Cape and Patrick's Point out of reserves -- concessions the environmentalists have had to make. That way fishermen, already hit hard economically by other fishing regulations and the bans on salmon fishing in recent years, would still have access to some rocky areas. And, they would still be within a day's trip, out and back, to these areas.

Watson said the working group has agreed that there should be a 10-mile safety zone around ports so that fishermen don't have to skirt too widely around reserves to get to their fishing areas, which could put them in danger during bad weather. The group also has agreed that the MPAs should recognize all tribal traditional uses, she said.

That last point hits on a serious oversight in the MLPA process, said Nelson. "They haven't done a very good job of recognizing that humans are a part of the ecosystem," he said. "To suggest that [tribes'] historical or ancestral activities shouldn't play a role in understanding the baseline conditions is dangerous, and mistaken. To say that we should manage things according to a completely unfished baseline, with absolutely no human take or activity is ... well, I have a problem with that."


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