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Dive Dry with Dr. Bill

#365: Catalina and the MLPA's "Integrated Preferred Alternative"

As many of you know, the effort to establish new marine protected areas (MPAs) in California waters and especially around Catalina has been an interest of mine for decades. My 700+ page Ph.D. dissertation focused almost entirely on the issues related to long-term analysis of giant kelp beds as a means of identifying good regions for such designation. I was pleased to learn earlier this year that a much short paper I wrote based on that work, and published in an international journal back in 1997 received a high honor. It was selected by a group of marine scientist as one of several papers to recommend to NOAA Administrator Dr. Jane Lubchenco as the federal government gears up for its own process of identifying MPAs at the national level.

I won't elaborate much on the need for marine reserves here. I've done that in a number of other columns. I won't even go into all four of the proposed maps for southern California that will be considered by California's Fish & Game Commission (FGC) at its meeting in Los Angeles this week (Dec 9th and 10th). I thought I'd simply focus on one, the IPA or Integrated Preferred Alternative that was cobbled together by the Blue Ribbon Task Force (BRTF) at their meeting last month.

At their meeting the BRTF reviewed the three existing maps put together by the working groups of members from the SCRSG (South Coast Regional Stakeholders Group). The SCRSG members had worked much of the year to come up with maps that would provide options for protecting our region's marine life. I was anxious to see how the BRTF would address the three maps and come up with the IPA they were charged with producing from those maps. Are you confused yet? Don't worry... I've been, too. It's a complex process involving many "deciders." Of course the strangest part of the process to me is that the Marine Life Protection Act of 1999 (MLPA) was supposed to be a science-driven process, yet the only truly scientific group was the Science Advisory Team (SAT, not to be confused with the college board exam). As you can tell, the science people were not "deciders," but just "advisors." I guess this is why I've never become involved in politics... it makes little sense to me.

I tried to follow the BRTF's meeting in November on-line. I must admit I was "slightly" distracted when the lovely Mia from Manila Skyped me in the middle of that, but one can't live by science alone! As the meeting drew to a close, the BRTF started making what seemed like a series of rapid fire decisions for its own IPA map that involved little discussion and often seemed to contradict the science itself. I grew even more confused (and based on feedback afterwards, I wasn't alone). The BRTF, a group consisting largely of public policy types, seemed to be consistent in one thing... they let economics and politics trump science. Undoubtedly the State's rotten economic condition played a big role, but these are decisions for the long haul that affect our grandchildren, not just for the short-term.

The ultimate "deciders" will be the California FGC which will have reviewed these maps the week this column comes out. I am hopeful that the Commission will look towards the SAT, that advisory group of scientists, for some input in evaluating their options. After all, a process that was supposed to be science driven should have some strong science in the actual decision making process.

Let's take a look at the BRTF's IPA map and see how it might impact Catalina if chosen. The map included shows two classes of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), full State Marine Reserves (SMRs) in which take is excluded except for the purpose of scientific research and monitoring, and State Marine Conservation Areas (SMCAs) where the ecosystem is largely protected but certain types of fishing are permitted.

Looking at our Island's leeward coast, we start with the SMCA from Arrow Point to Lion's Head Point that is essentially the existing West End Marine Invertebrate Reserve. Just past Two Harbors we see the SMR at USC that has been extended to include Sea Fan Grotto down to about Ripper's Cove. Fortunately the seaward boundary of this SMR was NOT extended all the way to the 3-mile limit and instead there is an SMCA in the outer waters that will permit fishing for pelagics. The Long Point SMR will offer protection for the giant sea bass in the region of Italian Gardens as well as some deep water habitats. Its boundary also does not extend to the 3-mile limit, and thus allows for pelagic fishing that might otherwise have been unnecessarily restricted. At the Avalon end of the island, the Casino Point Dive Park would finally receive official sanction as a fully protected reserve, and Lover's Cove would remain a SMCA. Neither of these sites are large enough to constitute good reserves ecologically, nor are they well placed to enhance the network of MPAs. However, they do offer good educational opportunities.

Our windward coast is quite different from the leeward coast ecologically. The submarine slope is shallower, the water tends to be a bit cooler and more turbid, wave energy is higher and solar illumination patterns are quite different. Yet on this coast the BRTF chose to create no true reserves, and gave SMCA status only to Cat Harbor and "Farnsworth Bank." While Farnsworth needs some good protection due to its unique marine ecosystem, the coastal stretch in the area of China Point represents one of the most poorly placed MPAs I've seen in any of the proposals. Currents sweep past this coastal region and off into open water for the most part. Any eggs, larvae or adults that "spill over" from this semi-protected area will most likely be "lost at sea," and thus benefit neither anglers nor the local ecosystem. In my educated and not-so-humble opinion (at least on this), it would have been far better scientifically to protect the coastline inside the "Bight" in this region, perhaps at least to Salta Verde Point. Of course politics and the economy entered into the fray here and commercial squid harvesting won out.

Just before submitting this column for publication, I received a copy of an analysis of the BRTF's IPA map. It looked at each MPA relative to the amount of ecological biomass it would protect. In almost every case, the IPA protected the least possible biomass. This offers one good objective (scientific) assessment of the BRTF's IPA map. In essence that map fails on the science. In fact, none of the four maps even meets the minimum suggested protection level... 20% of the coast... recommended by scientists familiar with marine reserve design.

A while back Rock Gosselin wrote in "another local newspaper" regarding his opinion on the MLPA process. Rock and I have had some very good natured discussions on the subject, and I have learned from him and other anglers. I totally agree with Rock that the use of large numbers of school children to press the conservation side of the debate at the BRTF meeting was inappropriate. I rather doubt any of the youngsters had a real grasp of the issues involved, even though they will be beneficiaries of the process. However I wish to add that actions by the pro-fishing groups have included young children, although certainly not to that degree.

More importantly, the tactics of some (a vocal minority) in the fishing community have been absolutely inexcusable. I'm referring to threats and physical violence against pro-conservation individuals. The worst case involves fishers spitting on an individual who may well be the most qualified scientist to talk about kelp forest ecology. His extremely knowledgeable voice was driven outside the process by totally inexcusable behavior (and I'm sure Rock and I agree on this as well). There were other threats of physical violence, as well as actual incidents of vandalism by members of pro-fishing groups. There is substantial opinion that much of this was fostered by drinking prior to the meetings (both alcohol and "Kool Aid"). I'm not aware of anything like this initiated by the conservation side. The fact that this type of behavior has become more common, not only in this process but also in Sacramento, the U.S. Congress and the society at large is deplorable. We have become so polarized, we now see ourselves as members of factions rather than as members of a nation.

Certainly this is a hot button subject with people taking passionate stands at all ends of the debate. When will we as a country regain a sense of civility? When will we as a country regain the long-term perspective that dominated "the Greatest Generation?" I watched my parents and their friends work hard, and sacrifice short term benefits to build a society ravaged by two long wars requiring great sacrifice on their part. They created wonderful communities and institutions for kids like me to grow up on. Today it seems far too many are focused on the short-term and what benefits them here and now. This extends from Wall Street to people walking on our streets (especially 6-8 abreast, leaving no room for foot traffic in the opposite direction). We will never regain our greatness until we realize we have to think in long-term ways... to ensure that our grandchildren and great-grandchildren will be able to enjoy our island waters whether they are non-take divers like myself or occasional hunters like my son and many of my friends.

© 2009 Dr. Bill Bushing. Watch the "Dive Dry with Dr. Bill" underwater videos on Catalina Cable TV channel 49, 10:00 AM and 5:00 PM weekdays and on Charter Communications Cable channel 33 at 7:30 PM on Tuesdays in the Riverside/Norco area. Please help me climb out of self-imposed poverty... buy my DVD's (see this link). Yes, take Dr. Bill home with you... we'll both be glad you did!

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The Blue Ribbon Task Force's (BRTF) Integrated Preferred Alternative (IPA) Map for Catalina
showing State Marine Reserves in red and State Marine Conservation Areas in darker blue.

This document maintained by Dr. Bill Bushing.
Material and images © 2009 Star Thrower Educational Multimedia