With armed Fish and Game wardens lining the Beach Resort Monterey conference room and allegations of physical threats casting a pall over the proceedings, the Fish and Game Commission slowly drew a patchwork net of preferred packages to create a comprehensive network of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) for the state’s Central Coast Region on Tuesday night.
The commissioners argued and compromised into the night, creating a divisive but historic blueprint for coastal resource management. After public comment from about 140 individuals, the commission created a proposal that includes 29 MPAs covering 204 square miles.
The selected proposal is a patchwork combination of Package P, the preferred option forwarded by the Department of Fish and Game and the Blue Ribbon Task Force, and Package 3R, a slightly less conservation-minded option.
If the decision holds, it will include 18 percent of state waters along the Central Coast region, which runs from Pigeon Point to Point Conception. Approximately 8 percent of this total area (94 square miles) is proposed to be designated as state marine reserves (no-take zones) while the rest would allow some recreational and/or commercial fishing.
At present less than 1 percent of the Central Coast region is protected.
The commission had particular trouble agreeing on popular fishing spots in the Soquel and Portuguese Ledge areas, as well as the Point Pinos area from the Coast Guard Breakwater to Point Lobos. Ultimately, the areas received moderate protection and a reserve was created from Point Pinos to Spanish Bay.
The Big Sur area will see more protection and fishermen will retain greater access south of there to Morro Bay.
Despite a unanimous vote at the end of the evening, the mood among the commissioners was far from ebullient. Commissioner Bob Hattoy bitterly complained that the commission had missed a historic chance to preserve ocean resources for future generations.
“We disappointed 44 million Californians today,” Hattoy said. Reminded that there aren’t 44 million Californians, he responded: “Fine, 34 million. When we get 10 [million] more then they’ll be disappointed in us too.”
Others were more optimistic, and acknowledged the historic nature of the accomplishment. The commission applauded the work of the Task Force and the stakeholders who participated.
The Marine Life Protection Act was passed in 1999, but languished until September 2004, when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger announced it would receive priority under his Ocean Plan. The governor convened the Task Force to oversee the process, which has consisted of extensive public participation. The Task Force forwarded their recommendation to the Department of Fish and Game in March after more than two years of research and discussion.
After the final unanimous vote, Commissioner Richard Rogers reminded everyone: “This was just round one.”
“The proposal still has to go through the CEQA process and then regulations will be promulgated and some or all of the areas could be implemented as early as 2007,” says Department of Fish and Game spokesperson Bill Romanelli.
The commission’s deliberations were made after hours of public comment. The crowd applauded or murmured in skepticism or sarcasm at each opinion. Commercial fishermen defended their right to make a living or demanded a buy-out; conservationists, scientists and businessmen lifted placards that read “Ricketts Reserve” every time the Pacific Grove marine refuge was mentioned.