Yahoo News , 15 March 2006

Calif. Marine Ecosystems Plan Moves Ahead

SAN FRANCISCO - A plan to protect biologically rich ecosystems along the California coast moved ahead Wednesday, with a state panel advancing proposals to establish a chain of marine protected areas where fishing will be banned or strictly limited.

The blue-ribbon task force selected three plans to set aside about two dozen areas off the central California coast as marine reserves, parks and conservation areas.

"This will give the state of the best tools it's ever had to protect marine life off the coast," said Bill Romanelli, a spokesman for the state Department of Fish and Game.

The six-member task force met in Seaside, near Monterey, on Tuesday and Wednesday to evaluate six proposals developed by interested groups including fishermen, environmentalists, coastal residents and scientists.

The task force chose one proposal developed by commercial and recreational fishermen, and a second by environmental groups. As its preferred alternative, it chose a proposal that combines the first two with a plan offered by the panel's own staff.

The three proposals will be sent to the Department of Fish and Game, which could make changes before passing them along to the Fish and Game Commission.

The commission is expected to vote on a final plan late this year or early next year, with the time of its implementation depending on the state budget.

"The money is going to dictate the timeline," Romanelli said.

Over the next five years, the same process will be used to develop plans for marine protected areas on other regions of California's 1,100-mile coast.

California has created various marine reserves over the years, but their boundaries and restrictions often conflict. The latest effort seeks a systematic, statewide approach to protecting coastal habitat. Florida and Hawaii have established similar marine protected areas.

The three plans for central California would establish reserves from San Mateo to Santa Barbara counties and include areas such as Point Lobos, Point Sur and Ano Nuevo. They call for putting fishing restrictions on up to 20 percent of state waters, which extend three miles from shore.

Marine reserves, mandated by the Marine Life Protection Act of 1999, are aimed at restoring populations of fish, crustaceans, squid and other marine life depleted by overfishing, pollution and other human activities. They're intended to protect key ecosystems such as kelp forests and rocky reefs, rather than specific species.

"Marine reserves protect the whole web of life," said Kaitilin Gaffney, Central Coast program manager for the Ocean Conservancy.

But fishermen don't believe it's necessary to establish marine protected areas, given the plans' possible impact on their livelihoods.

"No matter which package gets picked, there will be some pain," said Howard Egan of the Recreational Fishing Alliance. "There will be severe pain for some fishermen."