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Wednesday, December 7, 2011
Updated: December 8, 5:56 PM ET
Fishing for trouble?


The La Jolla coast, prized surfing, fishing and diving grounds.

It seems natural to support state legislation that intends to create marine protected areas along the California coast, but after California passed the Marine Life Protection Act in 1999, the decisions about where and how big these areas should be erupted into a 10-year, knock-down-drag-out fight between commercial fishing interests, recreational fishermen, environmentalists, politicians and scientists -- many of whom were surfers as well.

The process called for a "science advisory" team to collect information on any given area. This body reported results to a board of local stakeholders which drew various, competing maps and presented these to the California Department Fish and Game. A "blue-ribbon" task force made of seven, sometimes politically interested individuals, chose a map and submitted it to a Fish and Game Commission.

Every level of the process was fraught with dissent. Livelihoods and life-long passions were at stake. Early rumors about surfing being banned from all Marine Protect Areas (MPA) due to the damage caused by walking on reefs, etc., pitted surfers against environmental organizations that proposed to represent them. Much of this was due to the fact that good surfing and good habitat often occur in the same space. Environmentalists argued that in the end, the protected areas would pose a net gain. More bio-diversity and larger, healthier populations would spill over the boundaries of any preserve. In five years, they say, "fishing the line [at the MPA boundary]" will net more and bigger catches.

This fall when the Surfrider Foundation held a number of informational meetings up and down the coast to explain the new boundaries, their rules and their significance, plenty of surfers/fishermen showed up to voice their disapproval of the methods and boundaries already set to go into effect Jan. 1, 2012 -- boundaries that include surf spots ranging from San Diego to Santa Barbara to Santa Cruz.

And to the north, in an area where jet skis are already banned except on the biggest of days, Zach Wormhoudt and his friends at Maverick's are wondering just what the MPA holds in store for them.

At the Encinitas, Calif., meeting in November, one man raised his hand to say that the acronym "MPA" should stand for "Marine Poaching Area, because only poachers will reap the benefits of the closures."

James Thompson, a surfer and a free diver who hunts white sea bass, also attended the Encinitas Surfrider meeting even though he'd quit his membership due to Surfrider's stance in establishing the MPAs. What Thompson objected to was the methods for creating the MPAs, citing that they basically closed down reef structures. "While that gives you a lot of open coast, what's left is mostly sand bottom -- and sand in the ocean is desert to sea life as well."

San Diego Fishing Adventures owner and operator Peter Hamann, is an award-winning fisherman who grew up surfing and fishing in San Diego and now guides its waters. "The reality is that our fishery is not good, and it needs help," he said. "I'm actually bummed that so little was closed." Part of Hamann's optimism in closing fishing grounds stems from rebounding fisheries in Florida that benefited from fishery closures, as well as the strengthening black sea bass population off of Southern California thanks to its protection. Other positives Hamann cited were MPAs that allow catch-and-release fishing.

There is a confusing array of MPAs: State Marine Reserves, No-take State Marine Conservation Areas and State Marine Conservation Areas. State Marine Reserves are the most restrictive. Others continue to allow no-take, shore fishing and spearfishing. The regulations of each area can be found on: http://www.dfg.ca.gov/mlpa/mpa_regs.asp

While Surfrider proposes that some of favorite wave zones could be rebounding fisheries as well, organizations like Coastkeeper are actively reseeding MPAs with species like green abalone. With an exceptional variety of waves and topography falling under regulations -- from Mavericks to Campus Point -- it will be interesting to see what pops up.