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State Poised to Proclaim Key Offshore Preserve

No-fishing zone would cover about 175 square miles around the Channel Islands.

October 23, 2002|Kenneth R. Weiss | Times Staff Writer

The California Fish and Game Commission today is poised to approve the first phase of what may become the largest no-fishing marine reserve off the U.S. mainland.

The commissioners, if they adopt the recommendation of state and federal managers, will set aside about 175 square miles of waters around the Channel Islands, creating the equivalent of a wilderness area.

Federal action next year is expected to expand the protected area so that it encompasses a cluster of 13 reserves spanning 426 square miles.

That would make the Channel Island's cluster larger than a similar reserve complex in the Florida Keys, but not as large as an expanse in northwestern Hawaiian waters granted protection by Bill Clinton in the final days of his presidency.

The decision facing state commissioners is a radical departure from a 132-year tradition of pursuing the restoration and preservation of fish by setting size and catch limits or enacting seasonal closures.

A growing body of scientific evidence shows that those traditional measures have failed to halt the steady decline -- and sometimes the outright collapse -- of fish stocks.

So the commissioners are considering an approach that protects all sea life that makes up the marine ecosystem, from the biggest bass to the tiniest turban snail.

A panel of scientists recommended that 30% to 50% of the waters around the Channel Islands be protected to allow depleted species to recover and begin "seeding" surrounding areas with larvae and spillover fish.

Fishermen want as little territory as possible designated as "no-take" reserves, which means no dragging of nets, no diving for lobster or sea urchin, no harvesting of kelp and no dangling of hooks and lines in the water.

The plan before the commission represents a compromise fashioned by the state Department of Fish and Game and the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary. It would protect 25% of the waters immediately surrounding the islands.

"This is by far the toughest and most far-ranging decision that they will ever make," said Mary Nichols, California resources secretary.

Nichols is well aware that today's meeting will be packed with angry fishermen who fear the reserve will ruin their livelihoods.

But once the shouting is over, Nichols said, "I'll brag that the Channel Islands reserve will be the largest in [mainland] U.S. waters."

Indeed, some fishermen favor the reserves, including a group of recreational fishermen in Ventura County who initially proposed the idea.

"I fervently believe that it will be better for fishing, if not for me, [then] for my kids and their kids," said Steve Roberson of Camarillo.

"I've fished the islands 30 or 40 times a year for 25 years," Roberson said. "We've just hammered the ocean. It's just like how we almost wiped out the buffalo. It cannot be a free-for-all in the ocean anymore. Marine reserves are a logical extension of what we've done on land, such as setting up Yellowstone [National] Park."

Only about 1% of the world's oceans have been placed off limits to fishing. The percentage of protected California waters is less than .02%.

Leading scientists have called for 20% of the oceans to be turned into protected reserves. Earlier this month, Australia created the world's largest marine reserve, a 25,000-square-mile zone around the McDonald Islands group in sub-Antarctic waters.

The proposed Channel Island network of reserves is a test case for a statewide plan to establish similar no-fishing zones up and down the coast of California and off other states as well.

"California has opened the door for other places to consider reserves," said Jane Lubchenco, a marine ecologist at Oregon State University. "I get e-mail from scientists and politicians all over the world asking, 'What's happening with the Channel Islands?' "

Scientists have studied the one small area near the Channel Islands that is currently off-limits to fishing. Sea life inside that 37-acre reserve next to Anacapa Island is considerably more abundant than in the surrounding waters.

Lobster are six times more numerous. Sheephead, a type of fish, are three times more plentiful. Giant kelp grows five times more densely and weathers the seasons better than in unprotected waters.

Scientists are counting on a Channel Islands network of reserves to help restore at least a portion of Southern California's fast-shrinking kelp forests.

The kelp is prime habitat for many sea creatures, providing hiding places for juvenile fish and food for abalone. Scientists believe that excessive harvesting of lobster and sheephead, which eat sea urchins, have resulted in an explosion of kelp-munching purple urchins.

They have observed these spiny creatures carpeting the sea floor, turning kelp forests into sort of an oceanic desert called "urchin barrens."

The Anacapa Island reserve shows how balance can be restored, according to a new report by the Partnership for Interdisciplinary Studies of Coastal Oceans, in which four universities are involved.

"Lobster and California sheephead protected inside this reserve feed on sea urchins, thereby keeping urchin numbers in check," the report said. "Reduced numbers of urchins allow stands of kelp to flourish, which in turn support many other species.... "

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