State wildlife panel OKs reserves for marine life

Times Staff Writer

The California Fish and Game Commission on Friday gave final approval to the largest network of marine reserves in the continental United States, banning or restricting fishing across about 200 square miles of waters off the state’s Central Coast.

The unanimous vote establishes a necklace of 29 protected marine areas from Santa Barbara to Santa Cruz counties in an effort to replenish depleted fish populations and other marine life.

Fishing and other activities that can harm sea life and ocean habitat will be forbidden in areas such as the kelp forest off Point Sur along the Big Sur coast, the waters around the elephant seal breeding grounds at Point Piedras Blancas and a large portion of the rocky reefs and sandy seafloor along Vandenberg Air Force Base.


The commission’s action also bans bottom fishing in a portion of the Monterey Submarine Canyon to protect delicate corals and sponges and other deepwater species. It restricts commercial fishing from some waters along the Central Coast, effectively turning them into havens for recreational sportfishing.

“We’re creating marine protected areas -- safe zones -- where fish can grow large and help with fish reproduction everywhere,” Commission President Richard B. Rogers said. “In the short term, there will be real pain on fishing families. In the long term, everyone will benefit, including commercial fishermen.”

Friday’s vote was the final step after the commission gave preliminary approval in August for the network of reserves, recommended by scientists and citizens to protect a representative sample of differing ocean habitat, from deep underwater canyons to sandy seafloor, eelgrass beds and rocky reefs.

It came eight years after the California Legislature passed the Marine Life Protection Act, nudging the fish and game commissioners to consider setting aside marine parks and wilderness areas along the state’s 1,100-mile coast.

The law was passed after scientists and fisheries managers noticed steep declines in many species of marine animals, including bottom-dwelling rockfish, that once supported thriving fishing communities.

But progress in implementing the law has been hamstrung by budget cuts, staffing shortages, mismanagement and fiery opposition from lobbyists for recreational and commercial fishing.


Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has advocated implementing the law, reinvigorated the process by accepting grants from conservation-minded foundations to help defray the state’s costs.

To ease the work, the commission and the state Department of Fish and Game divided the coastline into four areas, with a fifth covering San Francisco Bay. The Central Coast was the first phase.

Now, state officials will turn their attention to another swath of the coast just to the north, stretching from San Mateo County to Point Arena in Mendocino County.

California has been leading the nation in establishing marine reserves, a relatively new tool to try to protect habitat and revive fish populations that have suffered from excessive harvesting despite a complex array of traditional fishing regulations such as catch limits.

“We’ve got to return the oceans to where they were decades ago,” said Rogers, mentioning the changes he has witnessed during his lifetime of scuba diving. “There is no intent to shut down commercial or recreational fishing. We are trying to help everyone,” he said, by working to restore the state’s once abundant fisheries.

Only about 1% of the world’s oceans have been set aside as protected. But marine reserves are popping up around the globe.


In recent years, marine reserves have been set up around the Channel Islands off Santa Barbara and Ventura counties, off remote islands in the Florida Keys and around the northwest Hawaiian Islands.

But the Central Coast network marks the first time a significant portion of near-shore waters along the continental United States has been made off-limits to fishing. In all, the plan bans fishing in about 7.5% of Central Coast waters. An additional 10.5% of these waters face some restrictions that allow limited commercial catches or are restricted to recreational fishing.