State and federal authorities recommend that nearly one-fourth of the waters around the Channel Islands be placed off limits to fishing to give severely depleted marine life a chance to recover.
The proposed Channel Island reserves, culminating three years of study and debate, will be publicly unveiled today before the California Fish and Game Commission. The commissioners are expected to make a decision by August.
The recommended network of 13 marine reserves and conservation areas that covers about 490 square miles is scattered around the five islands that make up the Channel Islands National Park.
The proposed no-fishing areas make up nearly one-fourth of the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary, a buffer of partly protected ocean that surrounds the islands.
Despite its name, the marine sanctuary is no haven for fish--except for a small area off Anacapa Island where fishing is forbidden. The sanctuary was set up primarily to protect the waters from offshore oil and gas drilling.
As it stands now, only 0.2% of California's coastal waters is off-limits to fishing.
The proposed reserves for the Channel Islands reflect a growing consensus among scientists and government officials that closing some sections of the ocean to fishing offers the best hope of saving species that continue to decline despite limits imposed on catch.
Yet, the size and location of the proposed reserves are the subjects of fierce debate.
"There isn't one square inch of ocean that you could close and not find someone screaming that their ox is being gored," said Warner Chabot, vice president of the Oceans Conservancy.
Busloads of angry fishermen show up at every meeting to protest what they see as a threat to their livelihood or their way of life.
Today's commission meeting in Sacramento will be no exception. A busload of 50 fishermen from the San Fernando Valley will be there "to keep up the pressure," said trip organizer Sal Vallone, the owner of Bob Sands Fishing Tackle in Van Nuys.
Vallone charters boats for 23 fishing trips a year to the Channel Islands, and he figures the proposal to end or restrict fishing around the islands will hurt his business.
"It's a wonderful idea, but the way they are doing it is very wrong," Vallone said. "If you are going to make [marine] reserves, make them so people can use them. All of their arguments have been to benefit the fish, not the public's enjoyment."
Environmentalists plan to release a public opinion poll today that shows widespread support for marine reserves in California. "Politicians should speak for the masses, not just the 150 angry fishermen who show up at a public hearing," said Vikki Spruill, executive director of SeaWeb, a marine conservation organization that commissioned the poll.
Of the 1,000 likely voters contacted by telephone last month as part of the poll, 69% said they favored "fully protected areas" even if that meant "you may no longer be able to fish in one of your favorite places."
Answering a question designed for this election year, the survey found that 83% of the voters said it was important that "the governor take a leadership role to make sure that at least some percentage of California's ocean is fully protected from all extractive, recreational and commercial activities."
Gov. Gray Davis, who has appointed most of the state's Fish and Game commissioners, has not taken a public position on marine reserves.
But the Department of Fish and Game, part of the Davis administration's Resources Agency, has joined with the federal manager of the Channel Islands Marine Sanctuary to propose setting aside 25% of the islands' waters for special protection.
The proposed network includes 11 marine reserves, which would ban all fishing, and two marine conservation areas, which would ban fishing for bottom-dwelling rockfish, but allow the take of lobster and migratory fish such as yellowtail and barracuda.
A panel of scientists believes that closing 30% to 50% of the waters is needed to cover all types of underwater habitat so that the widest array of marine life can hide from hooks and nets long enough to regenerate their numbers.
The fishing industry wants 13% or less placed off limits. For now, its representatives are pushing for the commission to take no action and allow fishermen to resume negotiations with biologists and environmentalists on drawing the maps.
That is what is about to happen elsewhere in a separate statewide effort to design a necklace of marine reserves along California's entire 1,100-mile coast.
State law required the plan to be finalized this year. But the fishing lobby stirred up such a political storm that Fish and Game officials coaxed the Legislature to postpone the deadline for more than a year to allow for meetings with local fishermen on the size and location of each reserve.
Fish and Game officials believe that little would be gained by more delays and more negotiations for the Channel Islands reserves. Fishermen, environmentalists and biologists spent two years trying to draw the boundaries before their talks fell apart.
"The consensus-based approach showed you can only get people to go so far," said Mike Chrisman, president of the Fish and Game Commission. "It's our responsibility now to weigh all of the options, the science and socioeconomic factors. Our hope is that by August we will have a compromise that will work."