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The Region

Channel Islands Fishing Ban Begins, but Dispute Continues

April 10, 2003|Jenifer Ragland | Times Staff Writer

Lt. John Suchil, at the helm of the patrol boat Swordfish, is a few miles off the coast of Santa Rosa Island when he pulls up alongside Mark Becker's small fishing vessel.

It's the first day of a fishing ban in new marine reserves that cover 175 square miles of ocean around the Channel Islands, and Suchil, a warden with the California Department of Fish and Game, is stopping every boat he sees in an effort to educate anglers.

Becker said he knows about the new reserves, although, like many fishermen, he isn't happy about them.

"I figure it's going to have tremendous impact," says the Santa Barbara fisherman, who uses underwater traps to catch crab and lobster. "What do you think happens when you're expecting a certain amount of revenue to come in, and then someone takes away 25% of your income?"

But supporters of the reserve system -- the largest on the West Coast -- say the economic blow to fishermen won't be severe, especially when weighed against the long-term benefits of conservation. They believe it will improve fishing around the five islands by giving a wide array of fish a chance to recover from decades of excessive fishing.

"As life becomes more abundant on the inside, it spills over to the outside," said John Ugoretz, senior marine biologist with the department, who joined Suchil aboard the Swordfish on Wednesday. "You can actually increase the catch outside these reserves."

The newly established network of 12 marine reserves and conservation areas around the Channel Islands is meant to protect all sea life that makes up the underwater ecosystem -- from the tiniest sea urchin to the largest halibut.

Such an approach is crucial for scientists and the public to understand these important habitats, said Sean Hastings, resource protection coordinator for the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary.

"Americans appreciate wilderness on land, for aesthetic or spiritual reasons," he said. "What we've done is establish that in the ocean, creating something for Californians and for all U.S. citizens."

For fishermen, enforcement of the new regulations began with an education campaign, as wardens made sure commercial and sport anglers they encountered received maps showing areas off-limits to their nets, traps, hooks and lines.

Ticketing will begin in about a month, officials said. Anyone caught fishing in an illegal area could face a maximum of a $1,000 fine or one year in jail.

Beyond enforcement, Department of Fish and Game officials will begin an extensive monitoring program in the reserves, designed to measure the effectiveness of the fishing ban, as well as an educational campaign for the public.

Currently, species numbers, size and diversity in the kelp forests and on the sea bottom are drastically depleted from decades of overfishing. Reserve systems in other areas have proven that struggling species can recover, if given the time and space to do so.

"Changes won't be instantaneous," Ugoretz said. "But in general, you see dramatic increases in the numbers of fish and invertebrates."

Although the idea for a marine reserve was first presented to the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary by a group of recreational fishermen several years ago, anglers now make up a well-organized opposition to the state project.

Commercial and recreational fishing groups protested the ban at public meetings last year, saying it would cut into livelihoods and put some of their favorite fishing grounds off-limits.

They also have sued the state in an attempt to abolish the reserves. A Ventura County judge last month denied a request for a temporary restraining order to block enforcement, but the fight continues, said Ilson New, attorney for the coalition of Southern California fishing groups.

An appeal was filed Friday, New said, and he will ask the state appellate court for an immediate stay on enforcement.

"I'm upset to see an unlawful act of the Fish and Game Commission cause ... damage to commercial and recreational fishing interests," New said. "I think it's outrageous."

Environmentalists, however, hailed the kickoff of the marine reserves Wednesday, calling it a monumental day for ocean protection advocates.

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