MONTEREY — The California Fish and Game Commission on Tuesday banned or severely restricted fishing across nearly 18% of the waters off Central California, beginning to roll out the nation's first network of marine reserves next to a heavily populated coastline.
The commissioners settled on a network of 29 marine protected areas, stretching from Santa Barbara to Santa Cruz counties, that collectively cover about 200 square miles of state waters. About half are reserves that forbid any fishing; the other protected areas ban commercial fishing or impose other restrictions. Some of the areas are off Point Sur along the Big Sur coast, Ano Nuevo in northern Santa Cruz County, Piedras Blancas near San Simeon and Vandenberg Air Force Base near Lompoc.
This set of reserves, more than six years in the making, is expected to be a model as additional reserves are created along the entire California coast to help depleted fish populations rebound.
"This is a landmark day, an historic day in California," said Commissioner Cindy Gustafson of Tahoe City. "We need to take great pride in our efforts to protect the coast of California."
Although the Legislature passed a law in 1999 calling for a statewide network of reserves, the plans have been stalled for years by budget cuts, staffing shortages and ferocious opposition from commercial and recreational fishermen who argued that the closures would imperil their livelihoods or pastimes.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, with funding from private conservation foundations, revived the process by focusing first on the Central Coast before considering reserves along four other sections of the state's 1,100-mile coastline.
"Today's milestone makes California a national leader in oceans management and is proof of what can be done when all those involved -- the fishing industry, environmentalists and others -- work together," Schwarzenegger said in a statement.
Southern California waters, from Point Conception in western Santa Barbara County to the Mexican border, will be the next battleground in this innovative approach to ocean management.
Marine reserves represent the most restrictive effort to revive plummeting fish stocks, some of which, experts say, have fallen by as much as 95% in recent decades. Regulations that limit the number of various types of fish that can be caught have failed to stave off the decline marine scientists fear could lead to a collapse of marine life. The reserves, by making all fishing off-limits, are designed to protect every marine creature in them -- from the biggest bass to the smallest snail -- and their oceanic habitat.
In recent months and years, marine reserves have been set up around the Channel Islands off Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, some remote islands of the Florida Keys and the northwest Hawaiian Islands.
Tuesday's unanimous vote by the five-member commission is the first attempt to set up such a network of reserves in near-shore waters along the continental United States. It means closures next to urban centers with harbors and many fishermen who depend on these waters to make a living or for recreation.
Schwarzenegger, who has been courting conservation groups as part of his bid for reelection, has pushed for full implementation of the state's Marine Life Protection Act of 1999, which sets up the mechanism to establish the statewide reserve network.
The reserves are designed to provide sanctuary for rockfish and halibut, lobster, abalone and shellfish that remain in the same area as opposed to albacore tuna, salmon, sardines and other pelagic fish that swim great distances in the ocean. The protected areas are also expected to benefit the endangered sea otter and other imperiled marine mammals by increasing available food.
Most of the reserves also offer protection for undersea habitat, including kelp forests, rocky reefs, sandy seafloors and deep ocean canyons, such as those in Monterey Bay. For the most part, these areas will be marked off by straight lines on nautical maps. Tuesday's vote came after six hours of impassioned testimony from fishermen who said they would be put out of business, from scuba divers who complained about the dramatic loss of fish to photograph, and conservationists who insisted that the reserves were the only way to save the remnants of formerly robust fish populations off the coast.
Fred Keeley, a former Democratic assemblyman who represented the Santa Cruz area and a co-author of the 1999 law, asked the commissioners to adopt the strongest possible protections and relax them at a later date, if needed.
"It took a long time for the oceans to get in this perilous condition," Keeley told the commissioners. "It's going to take a long time for them to heal."