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California | North Bay / Marin | Environment & Forest Defense

Marine Protection Planning: The Next Chapter
by William Lemos
Monday Jun 4th, 2012 5:20 PM
As the Fish and Game Commission prepares to make their final decision on the north coast community's ocean protection plan--completing the statewide underwater parks system called for under the Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA)--Mendocino resident William Lemos reflects on the north coast's ocean legacy, and residents' responsibility to be good stewards.
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Fishing stories on the North Coast are about more than bragging rights. They’re a way of telling the story of our community’s way of life, and preserving our traditional connections to the sea. Fueled by one of the four strongest upwelling systems in the world, our coast is one of the most productive ocean regions on the planet.

When the California Fish and Game Commission meets in Eureka on June 6th, we’ll complete another chapter in the ongoing tale of fishing in northern California. The commission will vote on – and should approve – the adoption of a community-designed network of protected waters for the region.

Any history of fishing here must begin with indigenous people. The spiritual connection of coastal tribes and tribal communities to the ocean and to particular North Coast places helped preserve the resources for many generations. When European immigrants arrived, my Portuguese ancestors among them, they too used the resources of the north coast, braving the elements in vessels with hardly any navigational aids aboard.

Few people living today are old enough to remember just how big and plentiful fish in this region were early in earlier times. Those bountiful rockfish and salmon populations are legendary, and even as recently as the late 1970s, catching a forty-pound lingcod here was not that unusual. Big old prolific female rockfish can live for a century, and they have exponentially more babies as they grow. But they are now the stuff of dreams, remembered only thanks to fishing families who have held on to historic pictures.

That’s because with more effective navigation and fishing gear and more people working the reefs, the rockfish that had been a mainstay of Pacific coast fisheries declined sharply in the 1980s and ‘90s. When commercial abalone fisheries also crashed in the late ‘90s, the California legislature took action to better protect marine ecosystems, passing a bill to improve fishery management in 1998 and a companion bill in 1999 called the Marine Life Protection Act.

The goal of the MLPA is to set aside a portion (in the North Coast approximately 13%) of the near-shore marine environment so that wildness can work its magic to replenish depleted or endangered plant and animal communities. Studies show that well-designed protected areas have more fish, higher productivity, and a richer array of species than nearby fished areas.

Thirteen years later, we are approaching the goal of creating marine wilderness areas along the entire California coastline, with each region developing their own plan based on input from all ocean users.

In the North Coast, local citizens — including fishermen, divers, educators, tribal members and naturalists — spent many months coming up with the plan, which includes 19 new or modified fish and wildlife refuges along the North Coast. While the “unified” plan reflected numerous compromises on ecological and socio-economic issues, the stakeholder group agreed that this plan worked best for all of us.

The stakeholders and state officials alike hold traditional tribal use of the coastline in high regard. The preferred project reflects this support, providing for the North Coast tribes’ traditional subsistence, ceremonial, and stewardship practices to continue in marine conservation areas.

The achievement of solidarity in the North Coast on marine protection is a remarkable statement about who we are. In the beginning of the process few anticipated that such an agreement could be reached. And yet, in the end, we not only reached agreement, but we also created a deeper understanding of one of the basic needs of our community: protection of our invaluable marine resources.

William Lemos is a member of the Regional Stakeholder Group of the North Coast Marine Life Protection Act. He holds a Ph. D. in Education.