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Panel draws line in the sea

A state blue-ribbon panel unanimously approved landmark fishing restrictions Tuesday for Southern California, creating a patchwork of havens for marine life designed to replenish the seas while leaving some waters open for anglers.

The plan, approved 5 to 0 during a meeting at which emotions boiled over briefly into shouting and shoving, was a compromise intended to sustain the 250-mile coastline’s environmental as well as economic health -- forged during a year of contentious negotiations between conservationists and fishing interests.

In recent decades, the catches of many species, including rockfish and cod, have fallen by as much as 95%. Populations of lobster, sea urchin, squid, sea bass, yellowtail and swordfish have all been in sharp decline. Fisheries experts have argued that some of those species could disappear entirely if steps were not taken to create no-fishing zones where breeding stocks could be replenished.

But any move to close waters to fishermen has been strongly resisted by both the fishing industry and recreational boaters. On Tuesday, representatives of both groups, many of them wearing black T-shirts, turned out at the panel’s meeting and predicted job losses and business closures.

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Environmentalists countered that stiff curbs were necessary to preserve and replenish fading stocks of marine life. They said that some panel members were allowing economic concerns to outweigh scientific guidelines designed to ensure the long-term health of the ocean.

After hearing from dozens of speakers, the panel members agreed on a plan that would close some areas, including waters off Laguna Beach and Point Dume, while allowing fishing off the Palos Verdes Peninsula and most of Catalina Island.

“We’re not going to make everyone happy, but this has to be done,” panel Chairwoman Catherine Reheis-Boyd said in an interview before the vote. “It’s agony to weigh the environmental goals against people’s livelihoods, especially here in Southern California, where the urban/ocean interface is greater than anywhere else in the nation.”

The Fish and Game Commission, which has adopted recommendations by other Marine Life Protection Area panels, is expected to take up the Southern California plan in December.

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Elected officials tried to intervene on behalf of their constituents. On Tuesday, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa wrote to the panel expressing his “strong support” for designated marine life protection areas. A week ago, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors passed a resolution in support of protecting kelp and canyon habitats at Point Dume, but leaving the waters off Palos Verdes Peninsula open to fishing. State Assemblyman Ted Lieu (D-Torrance) supported that plan.

George L. Osborn, a lobbyist for the California Fish and Game Wardens Assn., told the panel late Tuesday afternoon: “We do not have the resources to enforce regulations currently on the books. This is a matter that jeopardizes officer safety.”

A group led by Laguna Beach City Councilwoman Verna Rollinger supported a proposal to ban fishing along six miles of her city’s coastline. “I want fish in the ocean, and on my dinner plate,” she said. “To do that, we have to restore the ocean.”

Rollinger got what she wanted. But the plan elsewhere yielded to fishing industry concerns that it could drive people out of work in already difficult economic times.

Commercial trawling for squid and sportfishing for species including yellowtail and swordfish would be allowed on the back side of Santa Catalina Island, but sea urchin and sea cucumber could not be taken there. The plan would create a no-fishing zone off La Jolla -- a spawning ground for black sea bass and leopard sharks -- and prohibit fishing in the kelp beds and submarine canyons on both sides of Point Dume.

In a major win for fishing interests, the plan would allow continued fishing in the kelp forest and rocky reef habitats off the Palos Verdes Peninsula. “We got a good deal there,” said Bob Bertelli, a commercial fisherman for 25 years.

But overall, fishing enthusiasts were “upset about this plan,” said Wendy Tochihara, a fishing advocate and national sales manager for Izorline International, a fishing line manufacturer.

“We are a dying breed; the average age of a commercial fisherman is 59, and it’s tough work,” she said. “The impacts will not stop at the docks. They will hit restaurants, markets and the gas stations where we fill up our boat fuel tanks, even the manufacturers of the nuts and bolts on the engines of our vessels.”

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Conservationists dismissed fishing industry predictions of economic catastrophe as overblown. They pointed out, for example, that a five-year review of marine protection areas established in the Channel Islands in 2003 found no discernible change in commercial landings for some of the region’s largest fisheries: squid, lobster, urchin and crab.

Tempers flared. The panel was discussing proposed fishing closures Tuesday morning when kayak fishing enthusiast Charles Volkens, 44, stood up and angrily shouted at the panelists: “You have not listened to us throughout this whole process!”

When an audience member asked him to quiet down, Volkens screamed, “Come outside and tell me to shut up!”

At that point, the man charged at Volkens and pushed him. Both men were quickly ushered out of the Los Angeles International Airport-area hotel ballroom by security officers.

Later, Volkens said he was frustrated that the panelists were even considering the idea of banning fishing in a hot spot like Point Dume, which he described as “the last place left in the area where we can fish for white sea bass.”

Similarly, Sarah Lester, coastal resources director for the environmental group Heal the Bay, said, “I’ve got mixed feelings.

“Some keys areas like Point Dume were protected,” she said. “But I’m concerned they overlooked scientific guidelines in places like Palos Verdes Peninsula.”

The panel’s effort was conducted under the California Marine Life Protection Act, which was adopted in 1999 to set aside a comprehensive, science-based network of marine parks and wilderness areas.

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In an interview after the vote, panelist Meg Caldwell, director of Stanford Law School’s environmental and natural resources law and policy program, expressed a measure of disappointment in the outcome.

“There was a lot of give and take,” she added. “But overall, it’s better than what we have now.”

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louis.sahagun@latimes.com


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