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Prominent Biologist Challenges MLPA Science Panel Assumptions and Data
by Dan Bacher
Wednesday Dec 23rd, 2009 3:54 PM
Patrick Higgins, Humboldt Bay Harbor, Recreation and Conservation District Commissioner and a well respected fishery biologist, is questioning the assumptions and poor data that the "science" behind Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's fast-track Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) process is based on.

Photo of beached blue whale, killed on October 18 by a boat under contract to map the seafloor for Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's MLPA process, by Larry Wagner. The State Lands Commission staff found that Fugro Pelagos violated the terms of its permit when it struck and killed the rare blue whale off Fort Bragg in Mendocino County.
beached_blue_whale_chun.jpg
Prominent Biologist Challenges MLPA Science Panel Assumptions and Data

by Dan Bacher

Patrick Higgins, Humboldt Bay Harbor, Recreation and Conservation District Commissioner and a well respected fishery biologist, is questioning the assumptions and poor data that the "science" behind Governor Arnold Schwarzengger's fast-track Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) process is based on.

In a December 20 letter to a biologist on the MLPA Science Advisory Team, Higgins challenged the spacing guidelines and fundamental assumptions regarding the larval drift model, a model in which ocean groundfish populations are supposedly replenished by the larval fish that drift outside of marine reserves by means of ocean currents.

"The lengthy theoretical discussion of larval drift at your Eureka December 17 SAT meeting had absolutely no foundation," said Higgins. "As pointed out by one of the SAT members, the currents of the North Coast are strong and unique and the linear distance model has no basis here."

He also says that Marine Protected Area (MPA) size guidelines used previously in the MLPA process are "not appropriate" for the North Coast.

"We in the North Coast region prefer fewer large MPAs and believe they are more likely to achieve the conservation objectives of the MLPA," said Higgins. "Small preserves would not succeed in protecting fish populations because of migration of adults out of the MPA and fishing edge effects."

Higgins also points out the failure of the MLPA process to "consider the ecosystem benefits of existing fishery management" and the failure "to integrate existing fishery regulations and restrictions into its MPA size and spacing guidelines and analysis of MPA proposals," as noted by Dr. Ray Hilborn. This failure to consider de-facto MPAs such as the Rockfish Conservation Area, a massive zone closed to groundfish fishing that extends the entire length of California's Continental Shelf, has plagued the MLPA Initiative since Governor Schwarzenegger fast-tracked and privatized the process with funding from the Resource Legacy Foundation beginning in 2004.

"North Coast MPAs need to be considered in conjunction with the Rockfish Conservation Area (RCA)," said Higgins. "That is, if large preserves run out to the 3 mile limit of State waters, conservation benefits of closure to rockfish take from the 120 foot contour depth line to the 200 mile limit of the U.S. waters protect needs to be considered. Therefore, all conservation needs for water depths greater than 120 feet are already covered by the existing RCA and there is no other activity that jeopardizes the natural balance in waters of those depths."

Higgins added, "We hope the North Coast SAT will be open to this argument because the RCA closure is based on species that have rebuilding programs that span several decades into the future. Future adaptive management studies could help decide whether more protection is needed after RCAs are discontinued."

Higgins warned the scientific advisory team that "In the event that we feel there are fatal scientific flaws in the adopted North Coast SAT guidelines, and their imposition may create unknown biological consequences and potentially substantial economic harm, you can expect the North Coast region to challenge the outcome by every means possible."

Higgins' letter was sent as North Coast environmentalists, fishermen, Indian Tribes and seaweed harvesters are criticizing the MLPA process for being rife with conflicts of interests, questionable "science," mission creep and corruption of the democratic process.

In a previous letter Higgins sent on December 18, he asked Resources Secretary Mike Chrisman to extend the deadline for the submittal of North Coast external array proposals for MPAs to March 15. "We need the additional time because the bottom topography data used to conduct a scientifically valid MPA array won't be available until January 15 at the earliest," said Higgins.

Higgins sent his letter on behalf of the Humboldt Bay Harbor, Recreation and Conservation District, as well as governments, harbor districts and tribes of the North Coast region.

Chrisman hasn't responded to the letter yet. However, MLPA Initiative Director Ken Wiseman said he will recommend that Chrisman not grant the extension, according to an article by John Driscoll in the Eureka Times Standard on December 22.

"Ken Wiseman said that the North Coast region already has more information available than other regions did at this point in the process. The initiative has time and budget constraints, Wiseman said, and the legislation is clear that the program use the best available science," the Times Standard stated.

Wiseman's statement to the newspaper appears to be at odds with his 9/28/09 editorial in Times Standard.

"Over the next year, the north coast community is invited to participate in redesigning California's marine protected areas," said Wiseman. "Therefore, at the foundation of the planning process is community involvement, where all members of the public are encouraged to participate and each has the opportunity to influence the outcome."

If Wiseman is so concerned about encouraging "all members of the public to participate" and providing them with the opportunity to "influence the outcome," why is he recommending to Chrisman that Higgins' request for an extension of time be rejected? And why are Wiseman, Chrisman and Schwarzenegger so adamant about ram rodding the MLPA process over North Coast fishermen, tribes and communities even though the science behind the process is highly questionable, as Higgins so eloquently points out?



Below is Higgins' letter:

Patrick Higgins
Humboldt Bay Harbor, Recreation and Conservation District Commissioner
4649 Aster Avenue
McKinleyville, CA 95519

December 20, 2009
Jason Vasques, Associate Marine Biologist
MLPA Science Advisory Team Staff Support
350 Harbor Blvd.
Belmont, CA 94002

Re: North Coast Science Advisory Team Deliberations on Size and Spacing of Marine Protected
Areas and Habitat Replication Requirements

Dear Mr. Vasques,
I am writing to you as an individual for expediency, but I assure you that the questions I am
posing are on behalf of the governments and concerned community members of the North Coast.
I request that this letter be circulated to all individuals on Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA)
appointed North Coast Science Advisory Team (SAT) and that issues herein be specifically
discussed at their next public meeting. The concerns I will address below are regarding larval
drift theories and spacing requirements, size of MPAs and the need for following replication
guidelines similar to those previously adopted in other regions.

Spacing Guidelines and Larval Drift
The lengthy theoretical discussion of larval drift at your Eureka December 17 SAT meeting had
absolutely no foundation. As pointed out by one of the SAT members, the currents of the North
Coast are strong and unique and the linear distance model has no basis here. Figure 1 is
CenCOOS oceanographic data from between Shelter Cove and Point Arena showing a large
circular current or gyre. Gyres are fairly stable features that oscillate and can shift somewhat
seasonally. Longshore currents along much of the length of the North Coast reverse from
southerly to northerly with seasons. Ekman spirals also develop seasonally that can cause larvae
to be moved perpendicular to the coast (Hilborn et al. 2006).

I question other more fundamental assumptions regarding the larval drift model: 1) that larvae
must land in an MPA to recruit or 2) that there must be an MPA for larvae to be generated; both
assumptions are unmet. For the sake of discussion, let us consider a larvae drifting north linearly
from an MPA sited south of the Mattole River. If it were to settle near Cape Mendocino and
successfully recruit to the juvenile fish stage, under current fishing pressure it would not likely
be harvested until after it spawned, possibly several times. Also, millions of larvae are currently
generated along our wild coast without benefit of MPAs, which undermines the corollary
assumption. We believe that the statement of Hilborn et al. (2006) that “there is now no evidence
that current fishing practices upset the ‘natural’ biological diversity of the marine ecosystem”
applies to the North Coast region.

MPA Size Guidelines Used Previously Not Appropriate for North Coast

I strongly favor the arguments of Dr. Ray Hilborn, Professor of Fisheries at the University of
Washington, and Hilborn et al. (2006) provide the following insight regarding the size and
spacing of MPAs under the California MLPAI:
“The MLPA statute provided no explicit guidance to address the ‘SLOSS’ (single large
or several small) MPA debate, but suggested that decisions on size and placement be
made by a master plan team and regulatory agencies, with the involvement of
stakeholders. The science guidance provided by the MLPA Initiative Science Advisory
Team (SAT) clearly favored the SS (several small) approach in its interpretation of the
law. The SAT advice produced a very extensive network of MPAs in each of the MPA
network proposals, with a heavy emphasis on nearshore rocky habitat protected in marine
reserves.”

We in the North Coast region prefer fewer large MPAs and believe they are more likely to
achieve the conservation objectives of the MLPA. Small preserves would not succeed in
protecting fish populations because of migration of adults out of the MPA and fishing edge
effects. Effort shift further complicates impact analysis and needs consideration. There may be a
few North Coast areas of special biological significance that should be protected at a smaller
scale, but a few well placed large preserves away from ports along remote sections of our coast
will serve all aspects of the MLPA mission better than numerous small preserves; and it protects
our economy and way of life.

Hilborn et al. (2006) noted that previous SATs had “failed to consider the ecosystem benefits of
existing fishery management and failed to integrate existing fishery regulations and restrictions
into its MPA size and spacing guidelines and analysis of MPA proposals.” North Coast MPAs
need to be considered in conjunction with the Rockfish Conservation Area (RCA). That is, if
large preserves run out to the 3 mile limit of State waters, conservation benefits of closure to
rockfish take from the 120 foot contour depth line to the 200 mile limit of the U.S. waters protect
needs to be considered. Therefore, all conservation needs for water depths greater than 120 feet
are already covered by the existing RCA and there is no other activity that jeopardizes the natural
balance in waters of those depths. We hope the North Coast SAT will be open to this argument
because the RCA closure is based on species that have rebuilding programs that span several
decades into the future. Future adaptive management studies could help decide whether more
protection is needed after RCAs are discontinued.

Replication of Habitat Requirements

If North Coast residents come up with a workable strategy for fewer large conservation areas,
then the area of habitat types protected should be the criteria for judgment of sufficiency, not that
habitats have to be in numerous small preserves. The SAT seemed perplexed on December 17
about the possibility of allowing most significant protection to occur in fewer, larger MPAs. I do
not think that the theoretical basis of the need for replication can be validated and hope the SAT
will also reconsider this convention and its requirement for application on the North Coast.

The SAT process as manifest in your recent Eureka meeting gave me concern because of the
pressure to adopt previously formulated guidelines rapidly, but I was relieved that size and
spacing decision were delayed. The MLPA has been a major source of controversy and angst in
our community, but it has caused us to focus on nearshore ocean conservation needs. We think
we will meet these needs through the reserve design we will offer as an External MPA Array
proposal. We will provide a scientific framework and a workable plan founded on local
knowledge and data and hope the SAT will not constrain itself arbitrarily in judging it.
In the event that we feel there are fatal scientific flaws in the adopted North Coast SAT
guidelines, and their imposition may create unknown biological consequences and potentially
substantial economic harm, you can expect the North Coast region to challenge the outcome by
every means possible.

Sincerely,
Patrick Higgins
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