Protecting Marine Protected Areas

Years from now, Southern California’s new marine sanctuaries might be as popular with fishermen as they are with environmentalists. Once populations of fish have a chance to recover from years of depletion, these protected areas off the coast are expected to become incubators of sea life that will then expand into unprotected zones as well, meaning not only an enhanced environment but better fishing.

All that will take time, though — a study of a similar preserve off the coast of Baja California found that sea life there quintupled over the course of a decade — and for now these Marine Protected Areas, where restrictions took effect this month, are seen by fishing groups as intrusive and downright confusing. Limited fishing is allowed in some areas, none in others. The 50 sanctuaries form a patchwork that covers 15% of the coast.

The state doesn’t have nearly enough enforcement staff to ensure compliance, so various environmental groups are gearing up to watch over their local waters. Their presence isn’t welcomed by fishing groups, which predict nasty or even dangerous confrontations. But if the volunteers take the right approach — acting as monitors and tipsters, not as law enforcement officers — they could help the new sanctuaries get off to a good start.


In many parks and cities, volunteers patrol trails and streets. Along the coast, volunteers monitor tide pools and inform visitors about laws against harming animals or taking them from those areas. Sometimes just knowing that others are watching is enough to deter would-be lawbreakers. Some people honestly aren’t aware of the laws or of the reasons they exist. It will take time for fishing enthusiasts to fully comprehend — and accept — which rules are in operation where in the ocean.

But many people don’t like being approached and told they’re breaking the law, especially by someone without a badge or uniform. Volunteers have to keep interactions friendly, brief and informal, avoiding ugly situations. They shouldn’t lecture, scold or threaten to inform authorities; rather, they should back off when their efforts meet with resistance, move away and then call in a tip.

California’s Department of Fish and Game could make this effort more successful by creating a semi-official cadre of volunteers. The state should provide those well-meaning environmentalists with ID cards to indicate some level of official status, but more important, it should standardize their training. It would be a shame to see a disagreement over fish become a danger to people as well.