Mapping a Life’s Work

Guest blogger Sarah Sikich, Heal the Bay’s director of coastal resources, offers some advice on navigating the backroom battles of environmental policy-making. She served on a stakeholder panel that helped negotiate a highly contentious network of marine protected areas in Southern California.
The holiday season continues with the recognition of a little-known holiday, Underwater Parks Day, this weekend. And, this year we have a lot to celebrate. The California Fish and Game Commission made history last month by adopting the first network of marine protected areas (MPAs) for Southern California, marking our region’s first system of underwater parks. As a staff scientist at Heal the Bay, I played a role in the often contentious efforts to assemble the MPA maps, which set aside strategic sections of our shoreline for protection from fishing and other consumptive uses.

Sikich exploring boundaries off Point Dume

It will take years for the full history of our work to be written, but in the spirit of New Year’s introspection, I’ve been reflecting about the grueling but rewarding process. I’ve felt a slew of emotions – overwhelmed (in a positive way), pride and a smidge of disbelief. I had studied and educated about MPAs for over a decade, as a lowly undergrad at the University of New Hampshire, teaching at the Catalina Island Marine Institute, and then conducting my graduate research at U.C. Santa Barbara. And then I got to play an active role in the actual implementation of MPAs in Southern California. It isn’t every day that you to get to fulfill a professional dream.

As a member of the South Coast Regional Stakeholder Group — one of 64 individuals appointed to represent interests including commercial and recreational fishing, conservationists, local officials, and educators — I’ve spent hundreds of hours of personal and professional time over the past several years researching the South Coast, negotiating boundaries and creating MPA proposals that ultimately influenced the final Fish and Game decision. This is the hardest thing I’ve ever gone through professionally, and I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that there were moments I considered quitting the process.

At times official meetings went tens of hours, into the early hours of the morning. I spent many a weekend away from friends and family, visiting areas slated for protection or tightening up loose ends associated with a lengthy negotiation. It may seem crazy to spend so much time on one project, especially when the highly negotiated outcome isn’t anyone’s ideal. At times I questioned the wisdom of my getting involved in the messy process. But after the big milestone set by the Fish and Game Commission, I feel a sense of relief and fulfillment.

Those that helped implement the MPAs can take pride in creating a legacy of underwater Yosemites for future generations to enjoy. But getting there wasn’t all unicorns and rainbows. At times it was real tough to face off against opponents who questioned my intent, rolled their eyes and raised their voices when things got heated — blood, sweat and tears (literally) kind of tough. But those backroom battles taught me some important lessons about environmental policy-making.

Be patient.  When I first started to work for Heal the Bay over five years ago, Leslie Tamminen, Heal the Bay’s legislative director at the time, told me that moving any major environmental policy is a marathon, not a sprint. As a person that prefers to get things done quickly, slowing down and tapping into endurance proved difficult. But, patience was required to make it through two years of stakeholder negotiations. Sometimes it would take months to hash out the boundaries of a single MPA, and in some cases, like Palos Verdes, at least half of those involved never found satisfaction. But in other cases, taking the extra time to consider creative options helped us find elegant solutions to MPA locations or shapes that give a little to everyone, like the Point Dume marine reserve or Naples marine conservation area.

Be real.  It was daunting to enter the room at our first meeting with dozens of people that I didn’t know all sizing each other up – salty fishermen, reputable scientific and government personnel, and other environmentalists who may not share my goals for the process and outcome. At our first meeting in El Segundo, I arrived jet-lagged, having just deplaned from my honeymoon. I made my way to the coffee station and met a smiley bearded man, who grasped his reusable mug with rugged salt-dried hands. My conscious side told me not to judge, but he was definitely a fisherman. Was he out to get me? He asked me with a bit of a spicy attitude and some skepticism what I wanted to get out of the whole MPA process. But, honestly, I wondered the same thing about him. I explained that I believe in MPAs as a way to help restore our oceans, not only for marine life but for our future ocean heritage, both fishing and non-consumptive uses; and that I was excited to work with a diversity of people to find a reasonable solution for Southern California.

I think both of us were somewhat surprised that we shared similar goals, and now, I consider Bob Bertelli a friend. And even though we don’t always see eye-to-eye on things, and have gotten into heated discussions resulting in both resolved and unresolved differences, I think we often have the same big picture goals. I realized that morning that the only way we’d make it through the stakeholder process as a large and diverse group was to be real, share our personal stories, while staying true to our individual goals and beliefs. And, for the most part, those that stuck through the process maintained this standard. If they didn’t, stakeholders were not afraid to call each other out on slipped behavior or disrespect. Although it’s hard to disagree with people that you like and respect, I believe maintaining a genuine nature can help get you past those challenges and disagreements.

Be creative. Complex negotiations are always tough, especially when you’re sitting in the same hotel conference room for three days straight, slogging through working lunches and dinners. Adult beverages over dinner would sometimes spark new creative approaches to finding common ground, but some of our biggest breakthroughs occurred while getting out on the water, or removing ourselves from the official negotiation table and resuming discussions at a bar or over coffee.

During one set of meetings, our stakeholder group seemed to be completely stalemated on finding  a solution for San Diego MPAs. We went around and around in circles, with conservation interests recommending one thing and the fishermen urging the total opposite. Just before dinner, staff came up to a few urchin fishermen, myself, and Jenn Feinberg from NRDC, and asked us to try and sort through San Diego in a smaller group. So, over a few glasses of wine at the bar (with our computers buzzing to refine maps, I’m sure the bartender thought we were complete nerds and was confused by the social connections among our little group), we went back and forth with line adjustments and boundary options and then everyone just seemed to stop. By removing ourselves from the stalemate, Jenn and the others had found a compromise that met the major needs and concerns of the group, while protecting areas at Swami’s and La Jolla. I think we were all sort of awestruck when we brought our recommendation to the group the next morning and members voted unanimously to include our proposal.

Be a partner.  Okay, so anyone will tell you that partnerships are critical to achieving just about anything. But, I can’t leave it off this list, because alliances drove the stakeholder process and supporting the Commission’s adoption of the final map. I’m not just talking about getting all the like-minded people together to work on something. The diverse partnerships that drove the process encompassed environmentalists, scientists, educators, business, fishermen and others. Alliances leverage power. They share the load. They keep you sane. Many of us involved in this process have formed relationships and friendships that will hopefully grow into shared work on other issues, like improving water quality and ridding our waterways and oceans of plastic pollution.

Be emotional.  Who can devote years of their life to anything if they aren’t at least somewhat emotionally invested?  I researched MPAs in graduate school and realized quickly that holistic protection is an effective way to help restore marine life populations. Diving inside and outside the northern Channel Islands MPAs during graduate school revealed the stark difference between the bountiful marine life within the havens, and sparse kelp and fish outside these areas. I deeply love the ocean and I dive, kayak and sail whenever the opportunity arises. So I naturally wanted to help establish MPAs in my ocean playground – Southern California, and specifically in my home turf of Malibu. During the stakeholder process, my emotional connection helped me stay focused and persistent.

One day we spent several hours arguing over a 1,000-foot stretch of Malibu coastline. Our facilitator calmly kept the conversation going, while we stakeholders got heated about where the MPA boundary lines should be drawn. I got more and more frustrated as the boundary got farther away from where I thought it should go from a conservation perspective. But those representing fishing interests felt the same way about the area being protected. Eventually, we found a middle ground that everyone could live with, and the facilitator called for a quick break.

I stepped outside with a colleague and friend and immediately burst into tears. She asked what was wrong, and I explained that I was emotionally exhausted and felt like we had just given so much towards compromise. My immediate reaction was disappointment. Had I given in too much? She understood my frustration, but also put things into context when she said all that discussion centered on less than a ¼ mile of coastline, and we burst into hysteric laughter.  Of the entire 2,355 square miles of ocean in the South Coast being considered for MPAs, we were arguing for hours about a mere fraction of that area (0.0005% to be exact!). Obviously I had gotten wrapped up in the minutia.  But, without emotional investment, I probably would have not have stuck with it to find that compromise. And compromise ultimately is what drove the successful creation of the much-needed MPAs.


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