Flying over California’s rugged Central Coast, Mike Sutton pointed to kelp forests and rocky reefs just below the water’s surface that will soon be off-limits to fishing under one of the nation’s most ambitious plans to protect marine life.
“We’re trying to make sure our oceans are protected as our land,” said Sutton, a marine expert at the Monterey Bay Aquarium who piloted a single-engine plane along a coastline punctuated by craggy headlands, rocky islets and soaring mountains.
Despite intense opposition from many fishermen, California wildlife regulators are creating the nation’s most extensive network of “marine protected areas” – stretches of ocean where fishing will be banned or severely restricted.
The first chain of fish refuges, covering some 200 square miles stretching from Santa Barbara to Half Moon Bay, just south of San Francisco, is due to take effect early next year. The state then plans to establish similar protected zones in northern and southern California.
Conservationists say such networks represent a new approach to saving the world’s beleaguered oceans from overfishing. They believe California’s plan could serve as a model for other states and countries.
“It’s the beginning of a historic shift in how we restore, protect and manage our oceans,” said Warner Chabot, vice president of the Ocean Conservancy. “We’re doing something that’s as historic for the oceans as what Teddy Roosevelt did 100 years ago when he created national parks and forests.”
But the proposed restricted areas happen to overlap with some of California’s most productive fishing grounds. Commercial and recreational fishermen question whether they’re even necessary, given the existing array of state and federal regulations.
“We’re duplicating conservation efforts unnecessarily,” said Vern Goehring, manager of the California Fisheries Coalition. “There are significant actions already under way to prevent overfishing in California.”
Fishermen say the no-fishing zones will put more pressure on areas outside the reserves and could lead to increased seafood imports from countries with fewer marine protections.
At Monterey’s Fisherman’s Wharf, longtime trollers and crabbers say the new restrictions will cripple their industry, hurt fishing communities and leave Californians with less fresh, local seafood.
“We’re being regulated out of business,” said Mike Rivets, a 70-year-old fisherman for salmon, crab and tuna. “We’re being eliminated from the areas where we traditionally fish.”
But scientists say more must be done to protect fisheries.
A report in this month’s issue of the journal Science warns that nearly a third of the world’s seafood species have collapsed – meaning their catch has declined by 90 percent or more – and all populations of fished species could collapse by 2048 if current fishing and pollution trends continue.
“We’ve mismanaged the oceans from abundance into scarcity,” said Karen Garrison, an ocean expert at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “We can’t protect our oceans without setting aside safe havens where fish can grow big and the whole food web can thrive.”
Like other coastal states, California manages its fisheries by regulating the harvest of individual species by seasons, bag quotas, catch size and depth restrictions.
The state, which oversees its coastal waters up to three miles from shore, will add a new level of protection by limiting fishing in its richest marine ecosystems – coastal bays, estuaries, lagoons, kelp forests, undersea canyons, rocky reefs and seagrass beds.
The protected areas will include marine reserves where all fishing will be banned, and marine parks and conservation areas that will allow some forms of sport fishing.