A landmark effort to transform Southern California's coastal waters into a network of havens for marine life has sparked a fierce debate over where to locate no-fishing zones that ecologists believe are needed to replenish the surrounding seas.
Divers, fishermen, conservationists, business owners and marine ecologists will toil over proposed maps for the next few months, deciding how much each is willing to sacrifice in the interest of saving plummeting populations of fish that are the cornerstone of recreational and commercial fishing and tourism.
"Every square foot of the Southern California coastline is somebody's favorite fishing spot," said Steve Benavides, a tax attorney and diver of 40 years who is among the group of stakeholders hashing out their differences.
"Reserves are insurance against our own well-intentioned mismanagement of marine resources."
Of particular concern is a swath of ocean off Santa Catalina Island where kelp beds are patrolled by sea bass, and submerged cracks and crevices bristle with spiny lobsters. On the island's wind-swept western side, trawlers from Seattle, Portland, Ore., and San Pedro haul up 400 tons of squid a night, leaving little left to eat for resident white sea bass prized by fishermen and marine ecologists alike.
The effort is being conducted under the California Marine Life Protection Act, which was adopted in 1999 to set aside a comprehensive, science-based network of marine parks and wilderness areas along the state's 1,100-mile coast where fishing would be severely limited or banned.
The law was passed after scientists and fisheries managers determined that catches of many species, including bottom-dwelling rockfish and cod, had fallen as much as 95% in recent decades. Implementation was delayed for years by budget cuts, staffing shortages and fierce opposition from recreational and commercial fishing interests.
Southern California is the third region to be tackled under the program, which divided the state coastline into five parts.
Marine reserves have been created off the north-central and south-central portions of the state.
California has been leading the nation in establishing marine reserves, a relatively new approach to reviving habitats that have been overfished despite a complex array of traditional fishing regulations.
Extending the program to Southern California, one of the most heavily used stretches of ocean in the nation, has proved tricky.
Church Rock, a guano-covered outcropping pounded by surf just east of Avalon, is one of several areas being considered for a marine reserve.
On a recent sunny week- day morning, a group of supporters of the reserve led by Sara Sikich, coastal resources director for the nonprofit environmental group Heal the Bay, throttled down near the scenic site.
Strands of kelp nodded in the current. Mackerel and blacksmith fish rounded the boat's hull. White geysers on the horizon indicated a procession of migrating whales. Bright orange and yellow buoys marked the locations of lobster traps. Dozens of sea lions lounged on rocky reefs.
"Environmentalists like good habitat for the same reasons fishermen do: bigger sea creatures and more of them," Sikich said.
"Marine reserves, smartly placed, will ensure there are enough fish for everyone for generations to come," she said.
Not so fast, warn those whose livelihoods depend on the sea.
"If they really want to restore local fisheries, they ought to push the squid boats off the island," said John King, who operates a commercial fishing boat, Afishionado, out of Avalon.
"They come in at night by the dozens and pound this area with nets that drag along the bottom," he said.
Leslie Page, manager of the Redondo Beach Marina, whose clients fish the waters off Catalina and the Palos Verdes Peninsula, said the prospect of restrictions ranging from catch limits to outright bans "scares me to death. It's going to hurt all my lobster fishermen, pleasure fishermen, as well as hotels and restaurants."
But Bill Bushing, a marine ecologist who has been diving off Catalina for 40 years, believes reserves are the only hope of saving critical habitats and bringing back the kind of 400-pounders that made scales creak a century ago.
"The marine protection area selection process has become so tainted by politics and self-interests that it is losing sight of its original goal," said Bushing, who has proposed five no-fishing zones at Catalina. "That is to bring marine ecosystems back to life by setting aside a network of protected areas based on the best possible science.
"It's not reserves that will ruin local economies," he added, "it's overfishing."