California is embarking on a new effort to shield ocean waters from overfishing.
Law-enforcement officials have embraced a statewide ticketing system aimed at poachers and unwitting anglers who illegally catch bass, yellowtail, lobsters and other types of marine life within these zones, which are commonly called MPAs.
California's continued push to police its network of underwater state parks comes as government officials and scientific leaders from around the world gathered in Washington, D.C., last week for a conference on a wide range of marine issues, including climate change, pollution and restoring diversity of sea life.
Initially spearheaded by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in 2014, the Our Ocean conference has since drawn commitments to expand or form new preservation zones in sensitive ocean habitats from more than a dozen countries, including Morocco, Thailand and Canada, as well as the European Union and the United Kingdom. Most recently, the Obama administration expanded the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument off the coast of Hawaii — now the world's largest marine protected area.
Despite resistance from fishing industries, governments have increasingly pushed for MPAs in response to growing threats of widespread extinction of various fish and other marine species. A recent study published in Science magazine found that most threatened are larger marine species, such as tuna, sharks and sea turtles.
Getting fishermen and others to respect MPAs has been an ongoing controversy.
"Monitoring and enforcement of marine protected areas around the world is extremely uneven," said Mike Gravitz, director of policy and legislation for the Marine Conservation Institute. "It's often the case the acronym MPA stands for marine poaching area."
Commercial and sportfishing groups have argued that the restrictions could threaten their members' livelihoods. They also have insisted that their activities are being demonized even though most of their members abide by state and federal laws.
Expanded in 2012, California's network of MPAs covers about 16% of coastal waters, or roughly 5,200 square miles. In San Diego County, there are 11 protected areas. Restrictions there are as varied as prohibitions on any removal of marine life to recreational take designated fish species, such as salmon, sardines, mackerel and tunas. The idea is to create protected spawning grounds that help marine life rebound and eventually repopulate the fishable areas.
During the last few years, people caught poaching in the state's MPAs have been subject to misdemeanor charges. That relatively hefty punishment made prosecutors and then wardens reluctant to go after someone who, for example, may have unknowingly pocketed a starfish from an off-limits tide pool.
In response, the state rolled out a new enforcement strategy at the beginning of this year that subjects violators to a ticket — often for a few hundred dollars and payable in local traffic court.
On Tuesday morning, game wardens in San Diego County zipped up and down the shoreline in a patrol skiff, conducting a routine inspection of the protected areas.
"Typically, everyone says they didn't realize they were in the MPAs," said warden Ben Thompson, driving the 24-foot boat that skips briskly along the ocean at about 40 miles an hour. "Rarely, do we get anyone who says, 'Yeah, I did it on purpose.'"
Within about 45 minutes, Thompson and his copilot, warden Noel Richards, spotted a yellow ski boat fishing right on the edge of the MPA off the coast of La Jolla. The wardens motored over to find five young men who quickly explained that they were new to the sport and so had only vague knowledge of the restricted area's borders.
The wardens cut them loose after boarding the vessel and checking everyone's fishing licenses, but not before giving them a stern warning and a pamphlet detailing the location and specific rules for each of the region's MPAs.
"They're on the edge," Richards explained. "They didn't have any illegal fish onboard. They wanted information. I gave them the book."
The authority to issue an infraction in such cases has made a "massive" difference, said Clark McLennan, a game warden in San Diego County who said he's written about a dozen citations this year against people fishing in MPAs.
"It's way simpler," he said. "The fines are much more appropriate. We were giving out many more warnings, and now if you're fishing in the MPAs, you're (likely) going to get a ticket."
Still, given the estimated hundreds of people who fish San Diego waters every day, the number of violations being handed out remains relatively small — roughly 31 as of early September, according to the Department of Fish and Wildlife.
With about half a dozen wardens assigned to the county's coastline at any one time, the new protocol also allows other law enforcement officials such as lifeguards to write up would-be poachers.
That's welcome news for McLennan, who said it's not hard to find boats poaching in the county's largest MPA, located off of the southern coast of La Jolla.
"It's more common for there to be boats fishing in that area than for there not to be a boat fishing," he said.
At the same time, he and others said that the fishing community has become more aware of the MPAs and has been increasingly respectful of the restrictions.
As wardens hand out more tickets, it might be tempting to draw the conclusion that poaching by the local fishing community is on the rise, but that's not the case, said Volker Hoehne, chairman of the Waterman's Alliance board.
Tarrant Seautelle, who monitors the MPAs for local nonprofit Wildcoast, said during the last few years, most sport and nearly all commercial fishermen have started obeying the fishing restrictions.
"Most people have come to accept this is the system that we have now," he said. "There are stories and cases of poaching, but by and large, more of the population is respecting the areas."
Back on the water with Thompson and Richards, the wardens happened upon a fisherman in a kayak sitting in the middle of an MPA.
It turned out Stephen Stuart was just leisurely paddling back to shore, but the wardens took the opportunity to check his license. While he waited, the 25-year-old avid fisherman said that he and his friends were all very aware of the MPA boundaries.
"That's something that you stay aware of because it's a fat fine," Stuart said. "You can get all your poles taken. I mean, if you have a couple thousand dollars worth of stuff, you don't want your stuff taken, so you stay aware."
A five-year monitoring report is due out for the MPAs in the Southern California region early next year. It is expected to document both enforcement efforts and scientific data collected on the health of protected ecosystems. The document will also offer baseline data by which to measure the success of the fish populations over coming decades.