After two years of marathon stakeholder negotiation sessions, endless contentious public hearings and reams of studies and environmental documents, the California Department of Fish and Game today finally established a network of Marine Protected Areas in Southern California, passing a slightly revised version of the Integrated Preferred Alternative by a 3-2 vote.
The final vote reflects tough compromise. The maps protect some key places from extractive uses, like Point Dume, Naples and La Jolla, but fail to meet scientific guidelines in some locations. (For example, the fishermen won the battle for Rocky Point, and the MPA at Farnsworth Banks is little more than a paper park). The commission also made a few small changes at Swami’s and La Jolla in San Diego County.
The final hearing and vote took place in Santa Barbara, a fitting location given that the northern Channel Islands became California’s first designated marine protected areas years ago.
Unlike past hearings, the conservationists outnumbered the sport and commercial fishing community by a 3-1 margin. Almost every major coastal environmental group in Southern California attended. Also, a number of academics from USC and UCSB provided support. In a moment of levity, world-famous marine conservationist Jean-Michel Cousteau was introduced as John Michael Cousteau. To Jean-Michel’s credit, he didn’t miss a beat in his eloquent testimony.
The Men in Black — a cadre of black-suited attorneys making litigation threats to the Commission over an supposed “inadequate” and “rushed” environmental review and public process — represented fishing interests. Heal the Bay’s tireless and committed point-person on MPAs, coastal resources director Sarah Sikich, led both our negotiations and research efforts. Rebutting arguments about supposedly hasty decision-making, she pointedly noted that the just-concluded entire environmental review process for the 30-year Chevron lease in El Segundo at the State Lands Commission lasted only three months from the release of the draft EIR to commission approval — about six months fewer than the Southern California Marine Life Protection Act process.
On a personal note, my son Zack, an ocean swimmer, diver, and activist, chose to ditch class at Santa Monica High School to come to the hearing. Zack has been co-president of the school’s Heal the Bay-Surfrider Club for three years and a longtime volunteer at the Santa Monica Pier Aquarium. He testified passionately and eloquently . Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to fully enjoy my proud paternal moment, as I had to speak immediately after him. I know I’m biased, but I think he’s grown into an effective environmental advocate in his own right.
Commissioners Rogers, Sutton and Baylis supported the network, with strong opposition from Richards and Kellogg. Baylis made the final motion for approval. However, the most dramatic moment came from Rogers. He made a heartfelt speech recounting his over 50 years of diving experience and his desire to protect marine life for future generations. Also, he responded to the attorneys’ threats simply by saying, “Bring it!” His stated goal to return California’s coast to the resilient, sustainable state of his youth (larger fish and greater diversity) moved the audience.
The commission and its staff fulfilled their duties. The Science Advisory Team did a strong job developing science guidelines. The environmental community’s extraordinary coordination and advocacy efforts should serve as a model for future efforts. The two-plus year journey to a Southern California MPA network isn’t over. Fish and Game’s work to set up the MPAs, educate the public and enforce the MPA requirements has just begun. Hopefully the frivolous claims from the Men in Black will be dismissed, allowing Fish and Game to get down to details with MPA education and enforcement.
But today’s events mean that the continued degradation of Southern California’s marine ecosystems should become a distant memory, and the halcyon days of big fish and crustaceans and amazing biodiversity may return sooner than we think.