A comprehensive plan for Marine Protected Areas on the Central Coast of California continues to work its way up the regulatory food chain.

The state Fish and Game Commission heard a full day of testimony in Sacramento on Wednesday. Commercial and sport fishermen, business owners, conservationists, divers, scientists, educators and other concerned parties filed up to the microphone and lent their support to one of four packages under consideration.

Wednesday’s hearing was one of the public’s last opportunities to weigh in on the landmark plan. The Commission is scheduled to make an initial decision after a meeting here in Monterey on Aug. 15. In the fall, the public will have another opportunity to weigh in, when the approved plan is opened for public comment during the Environmental Impact Report process.

The Commission expects to implement the MPA plan by December 2006 or early 2007.

Supporters rallied behind one or another of a variety of packages that had been forwarded to the Commission after the much-publicized Blue Ribbon Task Force hearings were held last March in Seaside.

On Wednesday, the broadest support was for Package 2R, which is supported by a wide array of interests, ranging from conservationists to sport fishermen. Package 2R would place about a fifth of the Central Coast’s waters in protected areas. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, this would be a long-overdue improvement to the current situation, which protects less than four percent of the region. Package 2R received high marks from the Governor’s Blue Ribbon Task Force.

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Commercial fishermen were also on hand to rally behind Package 1, which is the least restrictive of the plans. The Commission is considering Package 3R, which the Blue Ribbon Task Force cobbled together from other plans during the March meetings. In addition, the Department of Fish and Game has also recommended a less protective preferred option, Package P.

The Marine Life Protection Act, or MLPA, was passed in 1999, but it languished until September 2004, when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger announced it would receive renewed priority under his Ocean Plan. The Blue Ribbon Task Force was convened to oversee the process, which has consisted of extensive public participation.

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