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California and the West

Landmark Bill to Protect Ocean Fish Is Signed

Capitol: New law, backed by both environmentalists and industry, shifts management of key marine populations from the Legislature to a state agency.

October 02, 1998|GARY POLAKOVIC | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Taking an important first step toward ensuring the long-term viability of the California marine fishing industry, Gov. Pete Wilson has signed a landmark bill that establishes the goal of creating sustainable fish populations.

The law is an acknowledgment that bold, new strategies are needed to cope with rapidly increasing demands on Pacific fish species already under stress.

The bill is "probably the most significant advance in fisheries management and conservation for California in 50 years," said Warner Chabot, Pacific region director for the San Francisco-based Center for Marine Conservation. "It rewrites the law that is pretty antiquated, and it rescues California from the fate of management on a crisis-reaction basis."

The law shifts control of commercial fisheries management from the Legislature to the state Department of Fish and Game. Critics, including environmentalists and fishing groups, say the Legislature had typically managed fish populations only when they were near collapse, resulting in a hodgepodge of complex and inconsistent rules driven by panic and politics.

Under the new law, the department must develop comprehensive management plans to conserve and sustain three threatened classifications of fish. The plans must be evaluated by panels of experts, be subject to public review and address the impacts of habitat loss and pollution, among other threats.

The goal is to manage fish populations based on sound science and to find ways of preventing their deterioration and collapse.

The first category affected is bottom-dwelling rockfish, such as sole and lingcod, white sea bass and those used in the fast-growing live fish trade. The latter group includes juvenile snappers and other rockfish that wind up in restaurant aquariums and on menus, often before they are old enough to reproduce in the wild. These species were targeted because there is wide agreement that they are in serious trouble.

If the Legislature receives favorable annual reports on progress in rescuing those populations, the management strategies can be used as models for numerous other species under the control of the Fish and Game Department, said Assemblyman Fred Keeley (D-Boulder Creek), author of the bill.

"I'm absolutely thrilled," Keeley said. "This is not tinkering around the edges with marine management policy. This is jackhammering the program and starting all over again."

Wilson signed the Marine Life Management Act around midnight Wednesday. It will take effect Jan. 1, and its implementation, which promises to be problematic, will fall to a new administration.

The bill had solid backing from a highly unusual coalition of disparate interests often at loggerheads on coastal protection issues. Sport fishermen, commercial fishermen, environmentalists and 20 scientists from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography endorsed the measure.

Major commercial and sport fishing groups said the new law ensures the survival of their industries and predicted greater profits if fish populations can be restored.

"It creates a situation where fishermen can finally tell their sons or daughters to go into fishing instead of some other profession, because they know there is a future for fishing. In the long term, this is going to be a real boon to fishermen," said Zeke Grader, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, the state's largest coalition of commercial fishermen.

The action comes on the heels of Wilson's vetoes Wednesday of a series of bills intended to clean and protect the ocean off California. Those measures called for expanded toxic cleanups, new rules to govern marine reserves and curbing of polluted runoff from farms. Wilson aides said the proposed laws were duplicative and lacked scientific foundation. The governor did sign legislation to force businesses to identify the pollutants they dump into storm drains.

Despite its broad base of support, the fisheries law is not without its detractors. Further, putting the measure into practice is fraught with problems that must be worked out among often divergent groups.

In a letter Wilson wrote when he approved the bill, he expressed concern over "some serious flaws that must be addressed in implementation."

In particular, he cited concerns about costs that will "severely encumber the already limited resources" of the Fish and Game Department. Although the bill calls for a $125 permit fee for near-shore commercial fishing boats, that is not enough to cover the costs of the plans to manage the fish populations.

A separate bill Wilson signed earlier in the year makes available $2.2 million annually for the program, although it is not clear whether that amount will be sustainable over the next seven years as the management plans are being developed, Wilson said.

In addition, environmentalists and fishing groups may have different views on how to build sustainable fish populations. Conservationists are willing to consider catch limits, but industry groups instead prefer other strategies, including protecting wetlands, reducing polluted runoff and ensuring adequate freshwater flows into estuaries, which serve as nurseries for many saltwater species.

In another environmental development, Wilson signed legislation creating a statewide cleanup fund for drinking water contaminated by MTBE and other compounds used to increase the oxygen level in fuels.

The bill would provide $20 million over three years for treatment, purchase of replacement water and investigation of possible sources of contamination. MTBE contamination of ground water has been a major problem in Santa Monica and parts of Orange County.

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