No-Human Zones for the Ocean

California's new fishing and preservation rules should set aside at least 10% of coastal waters for human-free marine rehab.

L.A. Times Opinion Column

August 5, 2006

THANKS TO GOV. ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER, California is on the verge of adopting its first plan to manage coastal waters to restore the ocean's health and bring back depleted fish populations. Before Schwarzenegger took office, efforts to pull together a proposal, as mandated by a marine preservation law passed in 1999, had stumbled for six years while the state drafted maps without consulting fishermen, environmentalists or outside scientists. But the new governor made the project a priority, set up a more inclusive process and got it done.

The state will start by designating a series of marine preserves along a 220-mile stretch of the Central Coast. Future proposals will address the rest of the coastline.

This is a relatively new way of protecting coastal waters, and one better supported by science. Instead of limiting the catch of one discrete fish population or another, it calls for setting aside certain entire areas for complete preservation, no fishing allowed. That way, nature can restore over time the balance of marine predator and prey, and the state's diminishing kelp beds will no longer be pulled up by fishermen's nets. In some other protected areas, only bottom-fishing would be prohibited.

It's especially important for rockfish — bottom dwellers encompassing about 90 species of fish — to have total long-term protection in some areas. Many of these have life spans similar to humans and produce far greater numbers of young in their 40s. Allowing fish to reach these ages holds promise for restoring fisheries to their historic levels.

But short-term, there would have to be some sacrifice, and this is where the disagreements come in. Fishermen, both commercial and sport, want fewer sanctuaries and lower levels of protection. Environmentalists want more. When the state Fish and Game Commission meets Aug. 15, it will have several competing plans before it.

Among the proposals, two appear to do the best job of balancing the survival of commercial fishermen with the desires of conservationists and the science presented by marine biologists. One, put together by representatives of all three groups, calls for 13% of the Central Coast to be placed in marine reserves where all fishing is banned. The other, by a blue ribbon task force that weighed all the recommendations, is a slight — excuse us — watering down of that proposal, putting 10% into reserves.

But the state Department of Fish and Game recently pushed for weaker protections, including opening a section of an important kelp forest off Point Sur to fishing. This won't do. Four years ago, overfishing so depleted rockfish populations that the federal government slapped an emergency ban on taking the fish across 8,500 square miles of federal waters off California. By preserving important state waters now, California stands its best chance of avoiding such draconian steps later.

What was intended as landmark protection for California's coast is in danger of being diluted to the point where its worth would be questionable. The commission should not dip below the 10% preservation line. Future generations of Californians — including its sports fishermen and the fishing industry — will be better off for the protection.,0,30319,print.story?coll=la-news-comment-editorials