Top Ten Reasons To Oppose the Marine Life Protection Act

by Don Cruser, July 13, 2010

1. The near shore ecosystem is healthy and does not need protecting. By near shore I mean from the high tide mark out to a depth of 60 feet. For most of Mendocino County’s shoreline, private property rights, steep cliffs, overgrown kelp beds, and a consistently rough ocean limit human access to this part of the ocean.

Several years back an unregulated commercial live fishery threatened the fish in this ecosystem. Fish and Game rectified this problem by restricting the number of licenses, limiting the season, and placing a size limit on fish. If you allow fish to reach a reproductive age you will always have fish.

My personal experience on the status of fishing goes back over 40 years. For years my father and I fished off the rocks. I recently took a visitor down to try our luck at the “14 fish hole”. We call it the “14 fish hole” because many years ago my dad, brother, and I caught 14 fish out of the hole on two different trips. It was a minus tide and I ventured down into the inter-tidal zone to gather mus­sels in a place where the mussels form a solid carpet and number in the thousands. I quickly filled the bucket and took a few giants for bait. I also took a few urchins for chumming. The tide pools were full of undersized aba­lone and oversized starfish in places where the urchins hadn’t taken control. I dodged a few waves to exit this no-man’s land, feeling as always, lucky to escape with my life.

The fishing action was constant with hardly any wait time for bites. In less than two hours of fishing my friend and I caught 12 fish. Seven Greenling, three Striped perch, one China rockfish and one Cabezone. We kept four Greenling, 13-18 inches long and the biggest China rockfish I had ever caught. It was hard to throw back the 14 inch Cabezone, but they have to be over 15 inches. We would have caught more fish except I pulled the amateur’s trick of letting a seagull steal our abalone trimmings.

We weren’t the only fishers. We had two harber seals swim under us, two sea lions outside the perimeter rocks, also out there was a large flock of seagulls feeding on a new egg hatch, ospreys flying back and forth, oyster catchers in the mussel beds, and flocks of pelicans headed north. Believe it or not I even had a river otter swim right under the cliff I was fishing from. These other fishers are not out for a Sunday afternoon swim. They are there because there is enough fish to support their lifestyle of eating fish for breakfast, lunch and din­ner. This near shore ecosystem is a wildlife Mecca that is as healthy as it was 30 years ago.

It should be noted that this all happened on State Park Land where the access is easy and safe. Not many people fish off the rocks, but the place is hit by divers who spear fish on occasion. That is, inside the protective rocks. Just outside of the perimeter rocks it is generally too danger­ous for boats to go. This is a naturally protected area, where these nearshore fish can thrive and reproduce.

2. Getting back to more reasons to resist the MLPA. This process is a really weird situation in which our State government has passed a law to create these marine reserves, but doesn’t have the will or money to implement the law. Moving eagerly into this void are several large environmental organizations eager to do the government’s work for them.

There are fundamental problems in this structure. Our government employees, particularly the Department of Fish and Game, are accountable and responsive to the citizens of California. These large private environmental organizations are obligated to the people who donate them money, whoever they are. They generally want to manage these reserves as a zoo. No-take zones where people can watch sealife.

The Big Green organizations pushing for the marine reserves include the “Natural Resources Defense Coun­cil” with offices in New York, Washington, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Beijing and a staff of over 300. “The Ocean Conservancy”, centered in Wash­ington DC, with gross receipts in 2008 of $18,765,033. “The Packard Foundation” with assets in 2005 of $5,674,749,000. Clearly when organizations get this big, they have the resources necessary to do a lot of good by confronting corporations and government failings. How­ever, when organizations become big bureaucracies, they also become self-promoting. Fund-raising to maintain personnel jobs can take precedence over science-based decisions. These organizations are looking for fund-raising issues and the MLPA was handed to them by the politicians in Sacramento.

A big problem with the MLPA process in Mendocino County is that it reeks with “Classism”. Historically, the environmental movement has been one of noble indi­viduals entering into battle with large moneyed interests. Think of Judy Bari fighting with Georgia Pacific, and junk bond financier Charles Hurwitz of Pacific Lumber. It has happened all over the world and these noble people are heroes of our time. However, if you examine the people involved in the MLPA process the roles are reversed. On one side you have “Big Green” with their multi-million dollar assets and well-paid staff. On the other side you have local people eking out a living off the ocean. This includes commercial fishermen and women, urchin divers, seaweed gatherers, and related sport and tourist businesses. These local people form a primary industry that is self-supporting, brings money into the county, and puts food on the table. The marine reserves will provide a few well-paid jobs for marine biologists who probably will live out of the county, be paid by government or foundations, and will produce data.

The Classism is clearly “Racism” in the way Native Americans have been treated in this process. I just made a couple of trips up to the sandy beaches of Usal and the Westport area in search of the elusive surf fish that run in to spawn on the beach. The Natives are always there in big numbers, just as they have been for a multitude of generations. The MLPA process has blatantly violated the rights of these people as spelled out in the American Indian Religious Freedom Act and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People.

The “Classism” is highly evident at the table of the Mendocino Ocean Community Alliance where “Big Green’s” representatives are paid $70,000-$100,000 a year to work full time on creating marine reserves. Meanwhile the local people are volunteering their time while working their survival jobs. This inequity has lead to autocratic decisions like trying to ban taping of meet­ings and splitting the committee into two groups. Of greatest significance is the fact that this alliance can only make recommendations, while the final decisions on location and status of the MPA’s in Mendocino County will be made by the Blue Ribbon Task Force comprised of “Blue Bloods” appointed by our governor. They include representatives of the oil industry, marine devel­opment, and real estate interests. The chair of the BRTF is Catherine Rehers-Boyd who is also president of the Western States Petroleum Association. What we have here is a person who has called for new oil drilling off the coast of California in charge of making the decisions on Marine Protection Areas. Classism on the part of “Big Green” has the same impact as classism on the part of “Big Finance” or “Big Corporations”. Working people end up losing.

3. Creating marine reserves “flies in the face” of local economic development. Every political organization and candidate in the county has been crying for the need to stimulate new economic growth. Meanwhile, “Big Green” is pushing to severely restrict or forever elimi­nate small local businesses that already exist.

4. Creating marine reserves “flies in the face” of the local food movement. The push to grow more food locally is happening big time here, and is essential to the local economy and the security of everyone who lives here. Eliminating access to ocean food is in direct con­flict with this movement. My objection is centered on the fact that seafood is so nutritious. Mussels are the richest source of vitamin B12. Salmon, tuna, herring, and sar­dines are rich in essential oils necessary for brain devel­opment in children. In particular, sea vegetables are a super food containing 20 to 30 times more nutrients than anything grown in our gardens. You would have to drink 17 glasses of milk to get the calcium obtained from eat­ing half a cup of wakame seaweed. I am with the Native Americans on this: We all have a basic right to sustaina­bly harvest the multi-dimensional bounty of our ocean.

5. To bolster their fund-raising, “Big Green” has for­mulated a “Big Lie” to justify the creation of marine reserves. The “Big Lie” is that marine reserves will bring back the fish. The question is: Bring back which fish? One of the Ocean Conservancy’s Internet advertisements sent to me as a justification for marine reserves focused on the plight of the marlin, swordfish, and other big fish. Now it is true that marlin are endangered world wide, but to imply that three mile square reserves anywhere will help bring back the marlin is blatantly fraudulent. My nature guide reference book to the Pacific Coast does not list the marlin in its index. That is because marlin are migratory, warm, deep water fish. No self-respecting marlin will place its self anywhere near a shallow water marine reserve on California’s north coast.

First on my list of the most endangered fish on the north coast are the Coho and King salmon. They are in trouble primarily because of loss of spawning habitat and damage to the quality of water in our rivers. The three years of low rainfall prior to this year has been the big­gest factor in the recent decline. The salmon have been big losers in the competition for water with agriculture and urban development. The best way for a resident of Mendocino County to understand this is to go take a walk across Coyote Dam, built to store water for Santa Rosa in Lake Mendocino. This dam blocked the thou­sands of salmon that used to run up the Russian River from miles of spawning habitat. The Coho that run up our small coastal rivers were wiped out primarily by the heavy logging of the 90’s when Georgia Pacific and Louisiana Pacific cut and ran. The consequent sediment in the rivers smothered the salmon eggs and fry. I used to fish the Noyo River for steelhead and Georgia Pacific, with the approval of California Department of Forestry, moonscaped the entire watershed. The fine sediment load in following years was so heavy it was difficult to wade in the river without getting bogged down in the quick­sand. That is when the Coho and steelhead disappeared. Marine Life Protected Areas will not help bring back the salmon. They are a migratory fish that spawns in fresh water.

Second on my list of endangered sea life is the red abalone. The real threat is the large scale poaching going on. One reason I dwelled on salmon so long is that they are a classic example of how “loss of habitat” is nearly always the greatest threat to the survival of a species. The habitat for red abalone here on the north coast is healthy and largely undisturbed. This habitat was even extended when the Russians brought Aleutian Natives here to wipe out the sea otters. This lead to an over­population of abalone and sea urchins. Since they can hold their breath for five minutes, sea otters can dive deeper for abalone. Most abalone divers seldom dive over 20 feet. Since the abalone live to a depth of 100 feet, most of their habitat is undisturbed. This is why places like Van Damme State Beach provide abalone for hundreds of divers year after year as the abalone move in over the winter. The major threat to this safe zone is poachers with scuba tanks.

Fish and Game estimates that currently more abalone are being poached for profit than are being harvested legally. One of my favorite places to dive is difficult to get to. You have to go down a steep cliff with about 80 feet of rope and then haul your weight belt and abalone back out of there. A shelf over 100 feet long offered a choice of abalone on every dive. This entire shelf was swept clean two winters ago. It could only have been done by poachers with tanks, in a boat, probably at night or in heavy fog. I don’t see how Marine Reserves will stop this. More game wardens and citizen action is what is needed. Support “Abalone Watch” and don’t hesitate to report suspicious behavior.

The other fish that are in trouble are the deep-water rockfish. This is a direct result of over fishing by both commercial and sport fishermen. This is highly evident out of Noyo Harbor where boats travel longer distances to find bottom fish. Too many drag boats and charter boats was the problem. The Feds and State Fish and Game have reacted to this problem. Fishing species, sea­sons, and waters have been highly restricted. The Pacific Fisheries Management Council has bought out nearly half of the drag boats operating on the West Coast. Pri­vate boats have never been as much of a threat, but are down in number.

Of particular interest is how do the regulations inter­act with Marine Protected Areas. Since state waters reach out only three miles, the reserves are under the jurisdiction of State Fish and Game. In 2005, F & G closed down all rock fishing in waters over 120 feet in Northern California. Going south the closures move out to 360 feet deep. The difference is designed to protect the Canary and Yellow Eye rockfish that are no-take anywhere. (Ironically, a couple of summers ago on sev­eral trips north we caught large numbers of Canary rock fish in the waters off the old Orca Inn.) This over two mile wide zone is closed to fishing until F & G deter­mines that the fish population has returned to harvestable levels.

So how does this closure interface with the Marine Protected Areas? It depends on how far from shore it gets 120 feet deep. Off the point of the Mendocino Headlands it is that deep within 200 feet from shore. Move over into the bay and it takes from the mouth of the river out well beyond the buoy. So lets be very gen­erous, and cover the greater depths down south, and say that the average distance from shore is one mile. It should be obvious at this point the proposed marine reserves encounter a redundancy. From one mile out to the three mile boundary is already closed for the species of fish that are down in number. In the proposed reserves, six out of the nine square miles is already a no-take zone for rockfish. The only difference is F & G will mange it as a resource and reopen it to fishing when the fish have recovered. As a marine reserve it will be closed forever.

Interesting enough, if you consider the amount of the ocean available for fishing, the restrictions of Fish and Game are much more meaningful as a corrective action than marine reserves. This is central to the “Big Lie” about bringing back the fish. Allow me to do the math: If you count up the marine reserves in California and add 6 that are proposed for Mendocino and Humboldt counties, you get a total of 44 where no fishing is allowed. Assuming generously that they average 10 square miles, you get 440 square miles of California ocean in marine reserves. The fishing extends out about 10 miles; so let’s take 9 of those miles for deep-water rockfish. California is 770 miles long, so the fishing grounds are 6930 square miles of ocean. 6.3% of the fishing grounds in MPAs is not enough to have a real impact on the fish or the entire ecosystem.

If the marine reserves are such a small part of ocean resource frontage, then why be concerned about them? It has to do with location-location, and access to the ocean. There are many limiting factors in ocean access. First and foremost is the ruggedness of the north coast. The high cliffs, high rocks, high winds, and high waves restrict both shore and boat fishers. Another obstacle is the vast amount of private property. Off the top of my head I can think of five places I used to dive that have been closed off by private development. Most of my diving is now done through the State Parks and they are getting hit hard. I have a friend who gets me into an exclusive, ocean front neighborhood once in awhile. On those dives I swim over hundreds of abalone. There are many natural reserves in the ocean.

7. Reason seven for not liking the MLPA: In the absence of sea otters and human harvesting, the sea urchins tend to take over the ocean floor creating what is called an urchin barren. I have heard differing opinions on whether this has happened in the Point Cabrillo reserve. I see it in the places I dive where the urchins are not harvested commercially.

8. The MLPA process does not distinguish between near shore and offshore environments, or reserves in Southern California and reserves in Northern California. There doesn’t seem to be any consideration of the fact that the sandy beaches off Los Angeles County (popula­tion 10,393,185) may need more protection than the rocky shores of Mendocino County (population 80,000). It is safe to conclude that there is as much variation in the ocean environment from north to south as there is in the land environment. Along the way there is a multitude of small and unique ecosystems making up a larger in­terconnected ecosystem.

When the “Big Green” representatives are confronted with the weakness in their approach to saving the fish they fall back on the position of “We are saving the eco­system.” This position is laughable in the context of set­ting aside 6.3% in order to save it. Do they mean you can save the whole ecosystem by keeping humans out of 6.3% of it, or do they mean you can save the 6.3% part as if it can be isolated from the external forces of this massive ocean? Neither position is realistic. The entire ecosystem needs to be managed and regulated. Fisher­men and women contribute over $60 million dollars to this cause every year through the purchase of their licenses. Surveys have shown that nearly 70% of Cali­fornians want the ocean managed as a resource that allows the harvesting of sea life in a sustainable way to provide food for their table. Somehow, “Big Green” has co-opted the will of all these people to shut down parts of our ocean.

9. The creation of marine reserves gives no considera­tion to water quality. This position ignores the lifeblood of any ecosystem on land or ocean. The politi­cians in Sacramento probably left this out in order to avoid conflict with “Big Ag”. Agriculture is responsible for two-thirds of the water pollution in California. Restrictions on offshore oil drilling and wave energy projects are not on the table. The MLPA only restricts fishing and sea vegetable harvesting.

10. The MLPA process is in violation of the Califor­nia State constitution, which says:

“CALIFORNIA CONSTITUTION, ARTICLE 1 DECLARATION OF RIGHTS, Section 25. The people shall have the right to fish upon and from the public lands of the State and in the waters thereof, excepting upon lands set aside for fish hatcheries, and no land owned by the State shall ever be sold or transferred without reserving in the people the absolute right to fish thereupon; and no law shall ever be passed making it a crime for the people to enter upon the public lands within this State for the purpose of fishing in any water con­taining fish that have been planted therein by the State; provided, that the legislature may by statute, provide for the season

when and the conditions under which the different spe­cies of fish may be taken.”

The representatives of “Big Green” say this has already been resolved in court. However, we all know that interpretation of the law is a fluid situation. If some­one is arrested for fishing or gathering seaweed in a reserve, then they can ask for a jury trial and use the con­stitution as a defense. Let the District Attorney try to get a conviction on this offense out of a Fort Bragg jury. This is the way the interpretation of law is established.

What do the experts say? Well, as you might suspect, “Big Green” has their experts. However, their science was peer reviewed by three of the top fisheries authori­ties on the West Coast. Ray Hilborn is a Professor in the School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences at the University of Washington. Richard Henry Parrish is a retired fish­eries biologist with the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration. Carl J. Walters is a professor in the Fisheries Centre?Zoology at the University of British Columbia. The complete text and highlights of their peer review of the science justifying the creation of MPAs are found on the home page of the California Fisheries Coa­lition. ( They conclude that there are major failings in the science and purpose of Marine Protected Areas. Here are some sample high­lights:

• “The MLPA science advice recommended a collec­tion of quantitative prescriptions about size and spacing of MPAs. It appears to us that those prescriptions were pulled out of the air, based on intuitive reasoning about larval transport and adult movement distances of various organisms.”

• “… we found the SAT assumption that the proposed networks would be biologically connected by larval dis­persal to be illusory; only a small fraction of larvae leaving one reserve would arrive in another reserve in reserves of this size and spacing. MLPA findings speak to correcting the illusion of protection provided by the existing statewide system of MPAs. Yet the science guidance adopted as 'best readily available science' appears to recommend moving from one illusion to another.”

• “The MLPA declares that MPAs and sound fishery management are 'complementary components' of com­prehensive efforts to sustain marine habitats and fisher­ies. The MLPA also requires the use of 'best readily available science' in designing and managing MPAs. Our analyses demonstrate that the MLPA science advice fails to meet both requirements.

• The MLPA science advice “recommended a collec­tion of quantitative prescriptions (about size and spacing of MPAs). It appears to us that those prescriptions were pulled out of the air … Considering the substantial eco­nomic and social costs posed by MPA establishment, relying on such intuitive assessments is not appropriate when the mathematical machinery is readily available to (create) … models that will give at least some feeling for likely quantitative consequences of various dynamic rate processes acting together. The best readily available sci­ence is the use of quantitative models.”

•"A final serious flaw in the SAT advice on this point is that for most species, the MPAs in state waters will protect only a small fraction of the spawning stock bio­mass. Achievement of the goals of the MLPA will be largely determined by fisheries regulations in federal waters, yet the SAT advice regarding size and spacing of reserves took no account of existing, pending and future fisheries regulation.”

• “When fishery management includes quotas, the use of MPAs will not reduce the volume of fish taken; it will only change the geographical distribution of the take. It does not require a complicated population model to know that the increase in biomass inside of MPAs will be roughly balanced by the decrease in biomass outside.”

• “…it is quite clear that the impact of MPAs is minor relative to the fisheries management actions taken by the PFMC and State. For commercially important species, we find there would be absolutely no benefit to the sus­tainable harvesting of these species from any proposed MPA network.”

Recommendation — Recognize that there is little chance that MPAs will contribute significantly to main­tenance of marine ecosystem function; the function of these ecosystems is largely determined by highly mobile species that will be totally unaffected by MPAs. Only widespread, effective fisheries management will insure maintenance and restoration of ecosystem function.

(Don Cruser is a retired teacher, retired commercial salmon fisherman, and an active sport fisherman. He has lived on the north coast since 1977.)

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