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Marine Protection Decision Lures a Capacity Crowd

Amid a standing room only crowd a committee appointed by the state Fish and Game Department was set to vote this past Thursday on a plan for marine protection along southern California’s coast, nearly bringing to a close a lengthy public review process and establishing stricter regulations that will effect marine ecosystems, fishermen, tourists, and untold numbers of beach and ocean users for years to come.

While about 40 protesters held signs outside a conference center in downtown Long Beach, the panelists heard presentations on three final schemes culled from nine original iterations to map out different levels of marine protection between Point Conception and the Mexican border.

Each member of a Regional Stakeholder Group, comprised of conservationists to fishing interests and charged with drafting the proposals, presented two-minute arguments for their proposal.

Laguna Beach’s marine protection officer Calla Allison, addressing the Orange County segment of the plan, argued for adopting the third, most protective proposal, designating Laguna Beach’s entire coastline a marine reserve, the highest level of protection, which would ban recreational and commercial fishing.

City Council members Verna Rollinger and Toni Iseman former mayor Ann Christoph, and Marine Safety Chief Kevin Snow echoed Allison’s position, speaking before an audience estimated at 700 people by Long Beach police.

Laguna Beach’s City Council urged such a designation in June in a 4-1 vote, surfacing a deep divide in a town with a long history of lobster-harvesting and spear-fishing.

Mayor Kelly Boyd, the only dissenting council member and a long time fisherman, intended to ask the council to reverse its position this past Tuesday at the council meeting, but the agenda item was removed at the last minute. No explanation was given.

The decision expected Thursday by the oversight panel, six experts in environmental policy, resource management, coastal development, land use and public administration, all but finalizes the regulations. Final approval comes from the Department of Fish and Game commission, an overwhelming likelihood, before becoming law. The department intends to ratify a final plan by Dec. 20.

Don Benninghoven, former task force member and recently appointed Fish and Game Commissioner, said, “The weight of having the task force make a recommendation – because the commission is aware of what they go through to get here – the commission will take that into very serious consideration. “

For a proposal to be rejected at the last stage is unlikely, he said. Within the three final round proposals on the table he saw measures that would satisfy the requirements of the Marine Life Protection Act, made law in 1999 to step up protections in the wake of the collapse of the abalone fishery. “Oh sure. The basics are there in the three,” he said.

 “We know how passionate you feel about this. We’ve heard that passion, we’ve felt that passion and we absolutely believe in it and embrace it,” said task force chair Cathy Reheis-Boyd, as people spilling into the aisles were ushered out of the over-capacity room.

All three current proposals afford the entire coast of Laguna with some level of legal protection and each would significantly expand the existing marine reserve at Heisler Park, though in different ways.

Proposal one, which was focused on compromise, would establish Laguna’s coast as a marine reserve – or no take zone – from Reef Point at Crystal Cove, south to Aliso Creek, and seaward in a triangle ending at a point about three miles off shore. This protects a relatively large amount of coastline, where tide pools lie, and less off shore habitat. The rest of Laguna’s coast would be a conservation area, allowing a moderate degree of fishing, extending 3/4 mile off shore.

 Proposal two, written by mainly fishing interests, expands the Heisler marine reserve north to Crescent Bay, south to Cress Street and seaward in a rectangle extending roughly five and a half miles due south, leaving more coastline and near shore habitat open to consumptive use. Areas outside the reserve would be conservation areas, with a more liberal allowance for fishing than proposal one.

Proposal three, made up mostly of conservation interests, designates the whole coast of Laguna Beach as a marine reserve, extending seaward in a triangle similar to proposal one, but larger.

The oversight panel will designate a preferred plan, which may be any one of the proposals or an amalgamation of the three, before submitting it to the state Department of Fish and Game commission, which holds the regulatory authority establishing and enforcing marine protected areas.

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