Wild Blue Yonder

Conservationists take to the skies for a fresh look at the sea


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A pair of fisheries biologists stood on the tarmac of Eureka's Murray Field airport Saturday afternoon, eyeballing a nearby Cessna 210 and talking about shapes. The scientists, mild mannered and perhaps a bit nervous, were HSU Fisheries Professor David Hankin and Crescent City-based consultant Zack Larson, both members of the North Coast Regional Stakeholder Group, which is working to implement the Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA), a comprehensive (and controversial) overhaul of the state's system of offshore marine reserves. In a nutshell, the MLPA, which was passed in 1999 but languished for years after two abortive attempts at implementation, calls for a beefed-up network of marine protected areas (MPAs) -- designated sections of ocean where human activities like fishing are restricted or prohibited ("Two if by Sea," June 25, 2009).

Which is why the men were discussing shapes. Developing proposals for the size, location and dimensions of the MPAs along the North Coast has been a fiercely contentious endeavor. The stakeholders shouldering this task include fishermen (many of whom claim MPAs are unnecessary locally), conservationists and Native American tribal entities, among others. Through a tri-county project, North Coast stakeholders preemptively developed some tentative arrays, though consensus has proved elusive. According to Larson, negotiations have reached something of an impasse of late. Saturday, a few stakeholders got a new perspective on their challenge.

"Who wants to go flying?" asked Michael Sutton, a charismatic pilot striding across the tarmac toward his single-prop plane. Sutton is vice president and founding director of the Center for the Future of the Oceans at the Monterey Bay Aquarium as well as a commissioner with the Department of Fish & Game, which has final authority over implementation of the MLPA. These simultaneous positions caused some controversy last year when the Central Coast Fisheries Conservation Coalition claimed they created a conflict of interest, since both the aquarium and the MLPA receive funding from the David & Lucile Packard Foundation. However, the Fair Political Practices Commission found the charge invalid, and Sutton argues that the accusation was a political ploy by MLPA opponents.

Regardless, the MLPA process is indeed a tangled web. Saturday's flight was facilitated by an environmental nonprofit called LightHawk (which also receives Packard Foundation money) along with the Ocean Conservancy and Humboldt Baykeeper. Such flights promote environmental causes by providing a bird's eye view of the ecosystems, Sutton said, explaining that flying can be a transformative experience. Members of multi-generational logging families, he said, have had "conversion experiences" after seeing clear-cuts from the sky. For the MLPA process, Sutton likes to take his fellow Fish & Game commissioners into the sky to see exactly where the protected areas will be. "Otherwise it's just lines on a map," he said, "and who gives a damn about that?"

Members of the local media were invited to tag along with MLPA regional stakeholders as they took to the skies. Sutton tossed some gear into a rear storage hatch, briskly performed a multi-point safety check, then climbed into the cockpit and fired up the engine. After rumbling down the runway, the Cessna lifted off softly, passed low over Highway 101 and banked right, angling north over Humboldt Bay. Sutton leveled the plane off at about 1,000 feet, just under the "ceiling" of overcast skies, and proceeded north, keeping the ragged coastline off the plane's right wing.

"There's a guy walking on the dunes," Hankin observed, his microphone voice amplified through noise-canceling Bose headphones. From this godlike perspective, the coastline's many human uses were readily observable: clusters of fishing boats seizing opening day of rockfish season, a crab boat, kayakers and surfers paddling through frothy waves, a lone sailboat in Big Lagoon, horseback riders on the beach. Near the mouth of the Klamath, about 100 yards offshore, Hankin spotted a cresting gray whale, and Sutton doubled back, banking the plane hard left for another look.

Soaring from Eureka to the Oregon border and back in just over an hour, Hankin and Larson identified countless landmarks -- places like Reading Rock, False Klamath and Point St. George -- explaining the MLPA challenges surrounding each one. Reading Rock, for example, has tribal significance. Actually, when you get down to it, Larson said, almost every inch of coastline in the region has significance for either the Yurok or Tolowa tribes. The MLPA asks the stakeholders to avoid such areas. "It's really hard to do," Larson said. In MLPA guidelines, "there's a lot of focus on rocky bottom habitats. Those areas are some of the most important tribal use areas. Wherever you put these things [MPAs], you're gonna step on the toes of the tribes."

Then there are the geological challenges. MLPA guidelines call for a variety of terrains -- shallow rocky reefs, sandy bottoms, deep rock -- but most of the ocean floor in the region is soft sand, which severely limits potential MPA sites. Stakeholders occasionally question whether their goal of consensus (or near-consensus, anyway) is achievable. Ultimately, the North Coast Regional Stakeholder Group will submit a few proposals to the science advisory team, on which Hankin serves. If they pass muster, they'll be passed on to the Blue Ribbon Task Force, which will construct a preferred alternative for submittal to the DFG.

It's complicated, Sutton admitted, but he believes it's precisely this factious, bottom-up approach that will finally allow implementation of the Act. "The public process the MLPA adopted is the most elaborate I've ever seen, but also one of the most successful," he argued. Guiding the plane back over Humboldt Bay toward Murray Field, he reassured the two stakeholders on board. "I think we'll have something we can be proud of very soon."



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