Expansion of Marine Protections Postponed

Aerial photo of Heisler Park in Laguna Beach.

The effective date that will make most of Laguna Beach’s coastline off-limits to fishing will be delayed past its original Oct. 1 start, fish and game officials said this week.

The new date to implement the extensive list of do’s and don’ts, intended to restore ocean habitat from Santa Barbara’s Pt. Conception to the Mexican border, will be delayed 15 to 45 days, said Sonke Mastrup, executive director of the state Fish and Game Commission.

Mistakes found in the lengthy rule-making document “dictating what would or wouldn’t be allowed,” are causing the delay, said Mastrup. The state’s Office of Administrative Law is reviewing the document.

Jordan Traverso, a spokesman for the Fish and Game Department, said changes in the rules’ document are needed to “make sure it’s enforceable.”  She said the problem has to do with a technicality that made enforcement questionable.

The delay has raised the ire of commercial fishermen, who have vigorously fought the South Coast fishing restrictions for three years.  Under the California Marine Life Protection Act for the South Coast, 49 marine protected areas have been established where fishing will be restricted or banned.

“The whole timing of this thing is incredibly horrible,” said Rodger Healy, president of the California Lobster and Trap Fishermens Association.  Lobster season for commercial fishermen runs from Oct. 5 to March 21. “What they’re (DFG) going to do about it and how it’s going to affect all of us, we don’t know.”

Aerial photo of Heisler Park in Laguna Beach.

A lawsuit filed last January by Partnership for Sustainable Oceans, an alliance of individuals and businesses involved with recreational and commercial fishing, seeks to block closure regulations. The suit filed in San Diego Superior Court cited several violations of the California Environmental Quality Act in the commission’s environmental review of the regulations and a lack of statutory authority, according to an online report.

“We have been told that the judge is sympathetic and is inclined to see that there’s validity in the litigation,” commented Healy, who operates his commercial lobster boat out of Dana Point Harbor.

But Mastrup downplays any legal vulnerability of the regulations.  “In the previous study region, North Central Coast, we had similar issues,” he said.  “These packages are very complex and occasionally you find a few mistakes that need to be fixed and the process requires renoticing.”

Mastrup said 20,000 people from all sides of the issue, who showed up for hearings over the past three years, must be notified of the changes before the rules can take effect.  He said he will know what the specific changes are on Sept. 6, a month before lobster season starts.  The changes will then be announced at the Fish and Game Commission’s meeting in Redding on Sept. 15.

Although some marine protection proponents are worried that the delay may allow unrestricted lobster trapping to occur this season, Louise Thornton, chair of Laguna Ocean Foundation, isn’t worried.

“I’m not very surprised and I’m not all that concerned,” she said.

“This whole document has been written by the public and not by legislation professionals,” explained Thornton, who has participated in the process since it started.  “There’s a bunch of mistakes that we’ve been asking them to close up. There’s some issues about exactly where some of the boundaries are.”

Thornton said she doesn’t think the lobster industry will set traps this year in hopes of snagging some spiny crustaceans during the delay.

“I think the Fish and Game Commission is aware of that concern,” she said, adding that prohibiting lobster trapping in the marine protected areas starting this year was the reason for the original Oct. 1 implementation date.  “I would imagine that the commission will just extend the date 15 or 45 days and say, ‘There will be no lobster season.’“

On Tuesday, Healy was preparing his lobster cages for this year’s catch, admitting that he wasn’t sure where he was going to drop them.   “For us to be put in limbo all the way up to the final hour is irresponsible,” he said.  Healy thinks a better solution is a cleaner ocean so that fish could thrive rather than closing off areas and leaving them “fallow.”

“Laguna Beach is one of the most polluting cities in the entire state, if not the nation,” Healy said.  “They’ve had more sewage spills and water quality is a huge issue.  If you’re going to protect habitat, that should’ve been one of the paramount issues.

“As a person who eats seafood, would you rather have your seafood harvested out of an area that was healthy and tested clean or out of an area that was polluted?”

As the regulations now stand, lobster trapping can still take place but in less desirable places, which Healy said will reduce his profits.  “There will be the same quantity of fishermen fishing in less-productive areas,” he said.  “These closures encompass the best lobster habitat.  They attempted to get as much shallow water, rocky habitat as possible.  That’s where lobsters live; they don’t live in the sand.”

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