Fishermen inform marine protection process
Release Date: 07-02-2008

Portland, Ore. – If you want to best protect marine habitats for fish and other species, don’t forget to talk with the fishermen. That may be one of the key lessons from the ongoing process to create marine protected areas (MPAs) off the California coast.

New MPA proposals under review by the California Fish and Game Commission will reduce economic impacts on the fishing community – while meeting goals and objectives for habitat protection on the state’s north central coast.

“If you can protect the right amount of habitat, with the right size and spacing, and not unnecessarily impact a fishery, that’s what our stakeholders and Blue Ribbon Task Force want to do,” said Ken Wiseman, executive director of the Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) Initiative.

The 1999 Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) directs the state to design and manage a network of MPAs along its 1,100 mile coastline. The Initiative is lead by a Blue Ribbon Task Force, which works with stakeholder groups that include fishermen, environmentalists and members of the public. Together they help guide implementation of the Act by designing and presenting protected area proposals to the Fish and Game Commission. The protected area network will be established across five coastal regions by 2011.

Around the world, MPAs have succeeded in protecting sensitive ecosystems by restricting human activities in designated waters. But with many communities dependant upon the near-shore environment for their livelihoods, the creation of MPAs can become a contentious process.

“I think a lot of fishermen are afraid that ‘if I tell you where I really want to fish, that’s exactly where you’re going to put an MPA,'” said Dan Wolford, a recreational fisherman from Los Gatos who is also a member of the Pacific Fisheries Management Council.

After the MLPA process began, California’s state agencies found that they lacked accurate data on the marine areas important to fishermen. In 2005, the Initiative contracted Ecotrust, a Portland-based conservation organization, to collect this information and assess potential economic hardships on fishermen.

“We’re just trying to get the best data and the best tools to the people who need it,” said Ecotrust Senior GIS Analyst Charles Steinback. “By finding new ways to give the fishing community a seat at the table and building trust between all these stakeholder groups, we’re also supporting more effective processes for marine habitat conservation in California and beyond.”

In the north central coast region, Ecotrust interviewed 174 commercial fishermen and 101 recreational fishermen about the value they place on specific areas of the ocean for fisheries that include California halibut, Dungeness crab and salmon. Staff then evaluated the potential impacts on the commercial and recreational fishing grounds and analyzed how closures would impact fishermen at regional, port and individual levels.

“If areas were going to be closed, we didn’t want to lose fishing areas that would hit us right between the eyes economically,” said Dave Yarger, a commercial fisherman out of Bodega Bay. As a regional stakeholder in both the central and north central coast regions, Yarger supplied Ecotrust with information about his fishing grounds and income and encouraged others to the same.

“This time, in the north central coast, I think we successfully used the fishermen’s data to help the stakeholders converge around economic choices,” Wiseman said. The Initiative’s first effort was on the central region, where 29 MPAs were adopted in April 2007. The MPAs there constitute 18% of the state’s coastal waters with an estimated 10% loss of profit to commercial fishermen. The preferred alternative for the north central region combines MPAs from three stakeholder group proposals. It recommends MPAs that set aside 20% of the water for conservation with only about a 6% loss. The California Fish and Game Commission is expected to adopt a plan for the north central region by the end of the year.

Results from the north central coast process echo a study performed by the University of Queensland and Ecotrust on the central coast MPAs implemented last year. Researchers found that networks designed with comprehensive data from fishermen were most efficient at meeting habitat protection with the lowest impact on fisheries. The report was published in the April 2008 issue of Conservation Letters – a journal of the Society for Conservation Biology.

“Talking to fishermen pays off,” said Dr. Astrid Scholz, Ecotrust Vice President, co-author of the report, and member of the MLPA Initiative’s science advisory team. “Bringing local knowledge into the decision-making process yields better results, both for marine ecosystems and for coastal communities.”

States looking to California’s lead include Oregon, where Governor Ted Kulongoski has voiced his support for a network of marine reserves. Meanwhile, work along California’s south coast region began with a call for participation at the end of June. Ecotrust has nine staff members in the region and expects to perform 1,000 interviews with commercial and recreational fishermen.

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About Ecotrust
Ecotrust’s mission is to inspire fresh thinking that creates social equity, economic opportunity and environmental well-being. For 17 years, Ecotrust has created, capitalized and catalyzed innovative ways to restore environmental conditions while fostering economic opportunities in the temperate rain forest–Pacific salmon region that stretches from Alaska to California.