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Marine Conservation
A Sea Change

After eight years of stop-and-start policy making, a big chunk of central California’s coastal waters go permanently off-limits for fishing this summer as part of the biggest network of marine preserves ever off the continental United States. Twenty-nine “marine protected areas,” totaling about 200 square miles and sprinkled between San Jose and Point Conception near Santa Barbara, will turn kelp forests and other near-shore habitats into “no-take” (or, in some cases, “restricted-take”) zones. “This is on a scale far greater than anything we’ve seen in the U.S. so far,” says Kaitilin Gaffney, an attorney with The Ocean Conservancy, which participated in the policy process.

Declines in some commercially fished species along parts of California’s coastline have been dramatic—in some areas the catch of bocaccio, a rockfish, fell by more than 98 percent from the late 1970s to the late 1990s. But this project is designed with a more ambitious goal: to preserve a set of unique habitats rather than one slumping fishery. The reserves were mandated by legislation passed in 1999, but negotiations only got going in earnest in 2004 after several false starts. The political dialogue involved protracted back-and-forth between scientists, state officials, and local fishermen, divers, and other coastal residents.

Conservationists initially requested that about 15 percent of the region be completely off-limits rather than the 8 percent that was eventually agreed to. Several commercial fishermen’s groups also chafed at the final decision, contending that the measure singles out fishing while ignoring other factors, such as pollution, that also influence ecosystem health.   

But the initiative enjoys strong public support, even among some sportfishermen. “In my 20-plus years fishing here, I’ve seen declines already,” says Jim Webb, a former president of the Cambria Fishing Club, who was also involved in the negotiations. He advocated for larger no-take zones, even though they include one of his favorite places to fish. “Most members of our club were eager to do something to help preserve this for generations to come,” he adds.

Prime beneficiaries will include Dungeness crabs, sea urchins, prawns, and rockfish—plus their predators, including seabirds and sea otters. The law was originally passed in response to research suggesting that even relatively small marine reserves, if chosen carefully, can help declining species. Not only do populations of fish and invertebrates within the reserves increase, but there seems to be a “spillover” effect on nearby regions as well.

California’s central coast reserve is the first in a series that will cover the coast by 2011. Because more than 25 million people live here, everyone from surfers to commercial fishermen feel they have a stake in its health. “This is a place where a lot of people value the ocean for a lot of different purposes,” Gaffney says. “If it can be done in California, it can be done anywhere.”—Kathleen McGowan
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