The state Fish and Game Commission voted 4-1 this week to set Oct. 1 the effective date for increased marine protections in Southern California, which will ban fishing along most of Laguna Beach’s coastline the day before recreational lobster diving season begins.
Reaction to the decision sparked a mix of action: conservationists are refocusing their efforts to organize a volunteer corps to tip undermanned enforcement authorities on marine violators, while commercial fishermen are weighing anchor and relocating to less restrictive harbors.
Mike Beanan, a proponent of the Laguna Blue Belt, a group that seeks environmental protections for Laguna’s coastline, said, “It’s pretty exciting. The sooner the better. I think everyone is going to benefit,” referring to the potential for increased fish populations within the marine reserve to spill over and improve fishing in adjacent areas.
Rodger Healy, president of the California Lobster and Trap Fishermen’s Association, said, “As fishermen we are let down by the process. It is transparently not fair. It reflects poorly on the process that we get no credit for being responsible stewards for 100 years of lobster fishing,” said Healy, whose fishery has the highest sustainability rating by Seafood Watch. California Halibut, another popular local species, however, has moderate to bad ratings, and points to the complexity of ecosystem evaluation.
Josh Fisher, a lobster fisherman and member of the stakeholder group involved in crafting the new protections, who is opposed to the Laguna Beach marine reserve, moved his boat from Dana Point to King Harbor, in Redondo Beach, because he saw the closure coming. He now lives and fishes there.
The decision to establish the highest legal level of protection for almost all of Laguna’s coast came after two years of hearings and negotiation between local conservationists, marine scientists, and commercial and recreational ocean users. The issue remains contentious as Laguna’s city council majority supported establishing the marine reserve, sparking protest by a long-established fishing community that sought to preserve its tradition.
Enforceability of the new rules remains unclear due to thin staffing of state game wardens. In 2009, California had the fewest amount of wardens per capita of any state, said Mike McBride, the state Department of Fish and Game’s assistant enforcement chief. Locally, the city’s sole marine protection officer lacks a boat. Joy Falk, one of the City’s animal services officers in a 2009 interview said fishing violations often fall to the bottom of a long list of calls and don’t get attention until offenders have left the area.
Healy said, “It’s ludicrous to say we wouldn’t want sustainable fisheries. But they can’t enforce what we have on the books now. I’m a law-abiding guy. I will lose my livelihood if I violate the law. This just displaces the people that are abiding by the rules.”
Ray Hiemstra, director of programs for Orange County Coast Keeper, seeks to address the enforcement shortfall.
“My feelings are it’s great it will be implemented. Now we’re going into full bore mode with training our volunteers and working with the D.F.G. and different enforcement authorities to get a program in place by then.”
Coast Keeper volunteers will monitor county beaches in an effort to provide enforcement agencies like the Department of Fish and Game information on where enforcement resources are most needed. The program is being modeled on a program developed by Monterey Bay Coast Keeper, according to Hiemstra.
“Basically we are the extra eyes that are going to be looking out,” he said.
Beanan’s wife Jinger Wallace, also an advocate of marine reserves, may be just the kind of person Hiemstra is looking for.
“I’m delighted it’s moving along and we have a firm date after years of public participation. If the public is engaged and the community is inspired to support and protect this, the reserves can work to restore our marine habitat.”