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June 10, 2010

Creeping Protectionism?

Looking into California's MPAs

It is not that I like to be a naysayer. However, when a subject that keeps coming up keeps making me uneasy, I have to wonder why. There are two possible answers. One is that I don't understand the issue fully, and the other is that the issue has proven to be a real problem. The latter is certainly true with Marine Protected Areas. Admittedly, the former may be true as well.

When the subject of Marine Protected Areas came to the forefront many years ago, I have to say that I did not take them to be a big deal. When some in the environmental community seamlessly interchanged the term marine reserve with MPA, that got my attention. As time has passed, there has been less attention on the whole subject along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts - not so on the Pacific Coast.

I was not concerned about MPAs in their early iteration because President Bill Clinton's executive order in May of 2000 was interpreted to mean that the government was going to simply "catalog" all the existing marine areas that offered any "lasting protection for part or all of the natural and cultural resources therein." OK, that seemed innocuous enough. It seemed like a national catalog of areas that had some level of protection and of how that protection was beneficial. Certainly, if one looked down the road, one would understand that the development pressures above, in and on the bottom of our oceans would only increase.

Then came the concern that MPAs simply would be turned into marine reserves where any consumptive uses would be banned. MPAs quickly morphed into the perceived vehicle to set aside an imagined 20 percent of the oceans as no-touch zones. No such event took place along most of our coasts, except in California, where somewhere in this process the state legislature passed the Marine Life Protection Act. It too in its primary form was viewed as fairly benign and held the possibility of actually benefiting the resources and users such as recreational fishermen. Much like a scalpel, which in some hands can be used to fix medical problems and in others is a deadly instrument, the MLPA could be helpful or harmful, and it became controlled by those who wanted to close off the California coast to recreational fishing. In Phase I, none of the recreational interests were accepted. For Phase II, the Partnership for Sustainable Oceans was formed by a coalition of recreational interests that included users and the industry they support. This partnership has kept its finger on the MLPA pulse and pushed for alternatives that are less restrictive on recreational users. So far, it has not been able to get a lot of traction.

Those in power have their agenda, and it does not include recreational fishing. Yet, going back to the original Act, its language was much like that of the executive order: It simply states that "there is a need to re-examine and redesign California's MPA system to increase its coherence and its effectiveness at protecting the state's marine life, habitat and ecosystems." A little bit like apple pie, mom and the American flag.

By some estimates, as much as 80 percent of the productive California coastline will be off limits to recreational angling. The worst part is that no amount of reasoned debate seems to affect what looks like predetermined decisions.

Perhaps this California example is what causes the unease in the back of my mind, even though those in charge say that this type of thinking is an overreaction. Maybe it is, but it is not without cause. What also brings about some unease is the fact that every time I attend another MPA Center update, there is something new added to the mix. At first, it was simply cataloging. Then came gap analysis after all the areas were analyzed. The concept of gap analysis seems to indicate that there is an unspoken objective that needs to be reached. Next came conservation impacts of the areas, not to mention a complete geographic information system for mapping, which appears redundant with the efforts being directed into the new Marine Spatial Planning initiative. None of these things individually would mean much, but together, like a snowball rolling downhill, they are gaining in size and momentum. Like much of our now massive federal bureaucracy, which started out small and focused, this effort is slowly taking on a life of its own.

The concerns with this whole process extend well beyond those of this writer. Since many of the areas that are eligible for designation are fisheries management closures, the Regional Fishery Management councils have some concerns about the management of these areas once they become part of the National Registry. Right now, the councils have been told they will retain the ability to modify the "lasting protection" for these areas and can simply request that an area be removed. Sounds reasonable, but remember back to the California example.

It is not my intent simply to be negative. In general, my feeling is that one should try to offer some sort of positive solution, but I cannot, and not because I don't want to. In a nutshell, my concern is that the majority of all recreational angling takes place in about 1.5 percent of all our oceans. If there ultimately is a successful effort to restrict access to some portion of our marine resources, it would not take a lot to have a substantial negative impact on recreational fishing. I do not see this as a direct assault on recreational fishing but as the possibility of its death by a thousand closures.