Opposing The Fish Protection Act

by Daniel Mintz, August 19, 2009

The resisters of Marine Protected Areas are facing a challenge — whether to comply with the public process system to achieve their goals or use more assertive means such as litigation.

The Humboldt County Harbor, Recreation and Conservation District’s working group on the Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) met August 10 at Eureka’s Humboldt Bay Aquatic Center to continue strategizing on the state’s planning efforts. There was a heightened sense of urgency, as a plan to limit or ban fishing and other activities was approved the previous week for the North Central Coast region, from Pigeon Point to Point Arena.

Now the MLPA process will move to the North Coast region, which includes Humboldt and spans Point Arena to the Oregon border.

Political speculation is surging as fishing rights advocates theorize on the governor’s motives and his reasons for appointing — illegally, they say — a new member to the state’s Fish and Game Commission, the final decision-maker on Marine Protected Areas (MPAs).

Members of the working group disagreed on the best ways to react, with some calling for unity around a regionally-crafted MPA proposal and others urging a legal fight.

Harbor District Commissioner Ronnie Pellegrini told the working group audience of about 30 people that the district’s organization of a three-county agency on coastal issues can apply political pressure. Working group members talked about lobbying Assemblymember Wes Chesbro and Senator Patricia Wiggins for legislative support for keeping fishing areas open.

Others described funding for the MLPA as a weak link during a budget crisis. But John Woolley, a former county supervisor who is now Chesbro’s field representative, doubted the viability of both approaches.

“My sense of it is that they will have the answers for the funding issue,” Woolley said, adding that there’s talk of a “collaborative approach” between state and federal agencies to implement, monitor and enforce MPAs.

Occassionally talking over interruptions, Woolley said there’s lots of support in California for creating MPAs and fighting the process is “an uphill climb.”

Perhaps it can be done, he continued, but he questioned whether it’s a wise move.

“Already the governor wants this to work, therefore you have to get something in play that would be veto-proof in a short period of time,” Woolley said. The MLPA has “a mountain of support behind it,” he added.

There was mention of so-called “Big Green,” a term that describes influencial, well-funded outside environmental groups. Pete Nichols of Humboldt Baykeeper and the North Coast Environmental Center said his understanding is that the non-local conservation groups will defer to locals but some group members doubted that.

Some said working within the process will result in failure — group members cited the MPA scenarios that have played out in other regions — and fighting it is the best shot at preserving fishing rights.

Tom Marking, a McKinleyville sports fisherman, said putting up a legal fight might work but turning to legislators definitely won’t.

“Is any one of those people ever going to double back and say no, we made a mistake, we shouldn’t do this?” he told the group. “No, they’re going to waffle, sit on the fence, they’re going to study it, talk about it, push the noodle around and not a damned thing is going to happen.”

Marking offered a different strategy: “The only way you’re going to stop this is to do the same thing the environmentalists do — find a chink in the armor, some law they haven’t met,” he said. “They haven’t followed their own guidelines, they haven’t followed CEQA and we need to shove it down their throat; that’s the only way you’re going to stop this thing.”

Numerous people responded by applauding.

There were also calls for making effective use of the public process. Throughout the meeting, Harbor Commissioner Pat Higgins emphasized the importance of rallying around a realistic approach.

He suggested that litigation isn’t a realistic project for the working group. “We’re not going to sue anybody, are we?” he asked.

“Not yet,” a couple of people said at once.

“So if we’re talking about that in this forum and we’re really not going to take that action, it’s actually a digression from the core of our business,” Higgins continued.

A variety of other ideas were suggested — inviting legislators to a local town hall meeting, pushing for local appointments to MLPA decision-making groups and asking for a lengthier, more in-depth review of MPA proposals.

The group’s membership agreed to form subcommittees on the various courses of action.

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