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Federal fishing ban casts wider net

The U.S. government is placing more waters off the Channel Islands off-limits to anglers.

August 09, 2007|Kenneth R. Weiss | Times Staff Writer

The federal government will announce today that it has permanently banned fishing from nearly 150 square miles around the Channel Islands, expanding a network of marine reserves that now make up the largest cluster of no-fishing zones in the continental United States.

The action nearly doubles the amount of ocean off-limits to fishing in waters surrounding the five Channel Islands off Ventura and Santa Barbara counties. But it leaves nearly 80% of the area open to sport and commercial fishing.

The announcement wraps up more than eight years of public debate, scientific study and bureaucratic roadblocks to expanding a cluster of already protected areas in state waters, which extend three miles from the islands, into surrounding federal waters.

"The Channel Islands has been the focal point of the national debate about marine reserves for the past eight or nine years," said Dan Basta, director of the National Marine Sanctuary Program in Washington, D.C. "A lot of people were losing faith that it could ever work. It's a marvelous achievement that justifies all of the efforts and hopes of people involved."

Surfing, scuba diving, swimming, sailing and motoring and anchoring boats will continue to be permitted in the new areas, as long as fishing gear is stowed and not in use.

Establishing marine reserves for the area was fiercely debated, with some sportfishing groups pushing to retain more flexible regulations that limit the size or number of fish caught. Scientists and conservation groups argued that decades of excessive fishing had so depleted marine life that more sweeping action was necessary.

Just a few years ago, hundreds of recreational fishermen packed public meetings to object to the government closing treasured fishing grounds. Opposition has ebbed over the years and more fishermen have grown to accept, if not embrace, the original vision for the Channel Islands marine reserves pushed by the late Jim Donlon, a longtime recreational fisherman from Oxnard.

"It was his brainchild," said Steve Roberson, a Thousand Oaks attorney who watched his fishing pal grow frustrated at catching fewer and smaller fish around the islands. Donlon told stories about whoppers he'd landed in the '50s and '60s. "His idea was to set up Yellowstone Parks in the ocean, where no hunting is allowed, so the fish are safe and get big and then spill over into places where we can catch them."

Donlon died of cancer before he could see his vision become reality, Roberson said. "I'm sure Big Jim is smiling from wherever he is now."

Many marine scientists share Donlon's view about spillover. Some have called for 20% of the world's oceans to be placed off-limits to fishing to reverse the decline in the global commercial catch.

California, which in 2002 established the first 135 square miles of reserves off the islands, has been in the forefront of this new trend in marine management, but the federal government and Australia have also embraced the idea. Australia placed a third of its Great Barrier Reef off-limits in 2004, and President Bush last year turned an archipelago northwest of Hawaii into the world's largest marine reserve, at nearly 140,000 square miles.

The federal addition to the Channel Islands reserves adds 148.6 square miles of no-take waters and conservation areas to those the state adopted in 2002.

California Fish and Game commissioners today and Friday will now discuss closing gaps that exist between these reserves -- totaling about 35 square miles -- and expect to take final action this fall.

When completed, the 318.4-square-mile system of protected areas will be the largest in the continental U.S. The only one that comes close is the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, which has just under 300 square miles protected.

Mike Chrisman, who is Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's secretary of resources, said he was delighted that federal officials have finally completed what he has been prodding them to do for five years. "We had some fun along the way in pushing them," Chrisman said.

The state has begun to roll out marine reserves elsewhere along the coast, a section at a time.

In April, the Fish and Game Commission approved a necklace of 29 protected areas along the shore between Point Conception near Santa Barbara and the northern edge of Santa Cruz County. State officials are now focusing on coastal waters just to the north.

The process of establishing federal reserves off the Channel Islands was delayed for years by jurisdictional skirmishes among various government entities.

The Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary, which oversees the waters within six nautical miles of the northern Channel Islands, ran into resistance from state officials who did not want the federal government to exert control over state waters included in the reserves.

In addition, the Pacific Fishery Management Council, which regulates fishing in federal waters, did not want the sanctuary to move into its turf. A compromise was reached allowing the federal government to add the new no-fishing reserves and a conservation area that allows some limited recreational fishing and lobster trapping.

One of the new off-limit areas to be announced today is the "Footprint," an undersea mountain just south and east of Anacapa Island. The seamount comes within about 360 feet of the ocean's surface and was once "a honey pot" of rockfish, said Milton Love, a UC Santa Barbara research biologist.

Love prowls the area in a submarine every year and finds more Bud Light cans than he does fish, the legacy of extensive recreational fishing.

"Given time, the rockfish should rebound," said Love, the author of several books on the bug-eyed, bottom-dwelling fish. "It has one of the best rockfish habitats in Southern California."

kenneth.weiss@latimes.com

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