Blue Ribbon Fish Protection

by Christina Aanestad, August 26, 2009

Coastal residents are protective of Mendocino County’s wild and rugged coastline — so protective that when the state announced a process for new marine protection zones, environmental groups and seafood harvesters started organizing.

The State of California is drafting rules which will restrict activity in new areas off the Mendocino, Del Norte and Humboldt county coast lines for ocean protections. That means chosen areas would be off limits to recreation and commercial activities including boating, fishing and other seafood harvesting. It’s a process guided by the Marine Life Protection Act, MLPA, which passed the state legislature in 1999.

The Act sets aside three different ocean reserves for wildlife to thrive. State marine reserves ban most human activity, conservation areas allow for limited human seafood harvesting, and marine parks allow for more human activities.

“The idea of the MLPA is to save some areas of the coast in their natural state, that means not affected by human activity,” said Karina Nielsen, a biologist at Sonoma State University who served on a previous MLPA Science Advisory Team. Nielsen hopes to also serve on the North Coast’s MLPA Science Advisory Team as well.

But just who is going to establish the marine protection areas is a major concern to coastal residents and fishing enthusiasts. Local seafood harvesters are concerned that conservation demands will dominate coastal access with which they earn their livelihoods. No one seems to trust outsiders coming into their community telling them where they can recreate, be, and or fish — especially seaweed harvesters.

“We’ve suitably harvested this area for three decades,” said John Lewallen, who, with his wife Barbara Lewallen operates the Mendocino Sea Vegetable company. They harvest seaweed along Mendocino County’s rugged coast line with a handful of other seaweed companies like Rising Tide Sea Vegetable Company, a $200,000 cottage industry in Mendocino County. They fear new marine reserves will impact their livelihoods. For the Lewallens it’s already happening.

On August 5th, the State Department of Fish and Game approved new marine protections from Pigeon Point, in San Mateo County to Alder Creek near Point Arena. New protections include Sea Lion Cove, one of the areas the Lewallens harvest seaweed. Sea Lion Cove is now an State Marine Reserve where abalone, algae and other plant harvesting is banned, just south of the Point Arena Lighthouse. The new zone goes into effect on January 2010. The Lewallens estimate the closure amounts to a 40% or $30,000 loss to their company.

“They’re making it look like people have something to say, but they don’t, they’re just spinning people’s wheels. At the last meeting I had a stack of bills and asked who will pay our medical bills, who will pay for our mortgage; and they snubbed their noses at us,” said Barbara Lewallen.

“That is a very unfortunate situation. There are other areas however where one can harvest sea palm that is not the only spot on the coast. There are trade-offs in trying to protect naturally functioning ecosystems and also allow for commercial exploitation and you need to balance the two,” said Nielsen who supports the MLPA process. She also agrees seaweed harvesters are using sustainable practices.

The MLPA establised more than 20 new protection zones along California’s pristine Northern Central Coast, according to the state Department of Fish and Game website. “24 marine protected areas (MPAs) cover approximately 153 square miles (20.1%) of state waters in the north central coast study region… Approximately 86 square miles of the 153 square miles are designated as ‘no take’ state marine reserves, while different take allowances providing varying levels of protection are designated for the rest,” reads the website.

The irony of the closure say the Lewallens is that a natural reserve already exists off Sea Lion Cove, where access is easy compared to the surrounding rugged coastal terrain. Here, shallow tide pools taper off into deeper waters where unreachable rocks are home to sea plants, sea anemones, and other coastal wildlife.

“There’s a lot of sea palm out there but 95% of it is too dangerous to harvest,” said John Lewallen.

Other south coast closures include Stewart’s Point intertidal zone. Lewallen says the area is the basis of Kashaya Pomo culture and food supply.

For some the Sea Lion Cove closure is an example of what’s to come to California’s northcoast fisheries and seafood harvesters are concerned. As the MLPA heads to California’s North Coast, urchin divers may be hit next.

“We may have to lay off people. That would effect our suppliers and of course the Uni fishermen. You could see the coast losing many hundreds of thousands of dollars in spendable income and people who make their livelihoods in this industry,” said Mike Zuckowitz, with Ocean Fresh Seafood, one of the county’s largest coastal employers. Zuckowitz estimates the Fort Bragg based company employs 110 workers. Their specialty is Uni — the reproductive organs of the sea urchin — a delicacy in Asian countries and sushi restaurants.

But proponents of the MLPA say the process is a public one. “How to redesign the MPA’s really does primarily come from the folks who live, work and play in that study region,” said Melissa Miller Henson, program director for the marine life protection act initiative.

Closures off Mendocino’s south coast like Sea Lion Cove, are an apparent exception to the rule. But fishing groups say they’ve been processed, not part of the MLPA process. Fishing groups, seafood harvesters and the Point Arena City Council have voiced concerns with the new MLPA zones off Mendocino County’s south coast. So, if the public wasn’t heard, who was?

“The Blue Ribbon Task Force recommended that there be a state marine conservation area at Sea Lion Cove because the red abalone population had experienced a decline since it was opened five years ago,” said Leila Monroe with the NRDC, the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group and supporters of the MLPA.

Miller Henson maintains that the regional stakeholder group recommended the area for closure. This reporter found no local who supported the Sea Lion Cove closure. Instead several local fishing groups have voiced concern with the Blue Ribbon Task Force (BRTF), a small committee that oversees the MLPA process and makes final recommendations of what areas to protect.

“The Blue Ribbon Task Force needs to be locals, not southern California lobbyists,” said Jim Martin the West Coast Regional Director for the Recreational Fishing Alliance, a sport fishing advocacy group.

The BRTF has completed protection zones in roughly half the state’s waters. While its membership has changed over time, a small group of individuals have been on the commission throughout all MLPA projects. They include Marina and oil industry interests.

According to the MLPA website, Catherine Reese Boyd, Chief of Staff for the Western States Petroleum Association, an oil industry lobby, has been a member of each of the Blue Ribbon Task Forces for the MLPA Initiative. Another BRTF member is William W. Anderson, President of Westrec Marina Management, Inc, a marina developer.

Both interests stand to benefit from strategic marine protection zones. The Point Arena Basin is home to Northern California’s largest known oil reserves. While the BRTF for the North Coast has not yet been announced, a look at pervious BRTF members indicates that these two interests could be overseeing the north coast’s MLPA process.

“This isn't real ocean protection, it's an ocean protection racket,” said Martin.

Big environmental groups like the NRDC who support the MLPA and have been involved in the process since it’s beginning, are unaware of the BRTF’s members. “I am not familiar with her representation of the oil industry. This is the first I’ve heard of her being a lobbyist,” said Monroe with the NRDC.

Seafood harvesters aren’t the only coastal interests concerned with the MLPA. Local environmental groups are too. Judith Vidaver with the Ocean Protection Coalition has a different perspective on the MLPA than the NRDC does. She’s an ocean defender, who fought offshore oil drilling with the fishing community since the late 1980s and believes environmentalists have to be supportive of the fishing community.

“Fishermen are the watchdogs of the sea, and it’s important their fishing rights are maintained because they will help us protect the ocean from industrialization,” said Vidaver.

In Mendocino County environmental groups and local fishermen have a long history. Together they opposed offshore oil drilling, nuclear waste dumping, and most recently challenged wave energy off the Mendocino Coast.

The sentiment is also felt in the fishing community. “I think they’re using this to clear independent fishermen out of the way so they can pave the way to industrialize the ocean, with frankenfish farms, offshore drilling, wave energy. [The MLPA] doesn’t ban any of that. All it does is say that folks can’t come out there and get food,” said John Lewallen.

The MLPA Initiative supports its BRTF members. “It wasn’t a prerequisite to be a member of the BRTF to have extensive knowledge about the ocean ecosystem or about particular activities that take place in the ocean,” said Miller Henson.

Henson justifies industry insiders sitting on the BRTF, adding that their strengths are at working on a public policy level. And big green environmental groups are still supporting the process. “The process is pretty exceptional in the level of public input and stakeholder input in the design of the protected areas,” said Monroe with the NRDC.

To locals, big green groups jumping on the MLPA band wagon are like lap dogs than watch dogs when it comes to the ocean. Smaller environmental groups are ready to take the lead.

“As a community we need to support our local resources and the people who are taking care of those resources and also distributing those resources for us. So we’re hoping there’s some way to be able to protect our resources at the same time as protecting the people who supply those resources to us. That’s what we’re looking for,” said Vidaver.

The Marine Life Protection Act North Coast region is in its early stages and ocean groups are organizing. Fishing groups will be holding a day-long rally September 26th at the Albion Flats from noon until 8pm to raise awareness of the MLPA process and the conflicts of interest. In the meantime, the MLPA Initiative will be announcing its science advisory team composition sometime next month.

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