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A rocky point indeed for California coastal task force

Opposing factions will be watching as a state panel proposes fishing restrictions off the Palos Verdes Peninsula. The Fish and Game Commission tends to accept such recommendations with few changes.

October 22, 2009|Jeff Gottlieb

The ocean off the Palos Verdes Peninsula has become one of the key battlegrounds in the long-running effort to implement a state law designed to create a network of habitats off the California coast to protect depleted fish populations.

The contentious debate over the size of the marine habitat in the waters around Rocky Point is emblematic of the disputes and hard-fought battles that have been waged since the Marine Life Protection Act was adopted in 1999.

The waters off the promontory are abundant with marine life and have long been favored by sport and commercial fishing crews. But the area also is prized by conservationists for its rich kelp forests, eel grass beds and submarine canyons that serve as fish nurseries and are considered vital to the health of the ocean.

A task force today will send its proposal on how much of the Rocky Point waters should be protected as part of its regional recommendations to the California Fish and Game Commission.

The hearing by the five-member Blue Ribbon Task Force in Long Beach is the last meeting in an 18-month process. The Fish and Game Commission is expected to hand down its decision in December. In other parts of the state, the commission has accepted the task force's recommendations with few modifications.

The task force, which is deciding restrictions in the waters reaching three miles off the coast from Point Conception in Santa Barbara County to the Mexican border, will choose among three proposals from its 64-member stakeholder group, made up of commercial and recreational fishing interests, marina owners, fishing clubs, spear fishers and representatives of environmental groups and state agencies, such as the Coastal Commission.

The stakeholders came up with three proposals: one from fishing interests, one from conservationists and one viewed as a compromise.

The average person might not see much difference among the three. The conservationists' proposal protects 17.6% of the region's ocean, while the pro-fishing recommendation protects 16.2%.

"Laymen would say it's insignificant, but to a person who knows, they would say the differences are very significant," said Paul Romanowski, of the California Fisheries Coalition. "If it's not well designed, it's really going to affect fishermen in a big way."

Romanowski was one of the leaders of a demonstration Wednesday outside the Long Beach Hilton supporting the pro-fishing proposal. Scores of people stood on the sidewalk outside the hearing, many wearing black T-shirts that said, "MLPA means less public access."

Not long after, about 10 student protesters from Greenpeace arrived dressed as mermaids and a sea turtle to support the pro-conservationist recommendation.

Inside the hotel, where the task force was in the second day of its three-day meeting, the overflowing meeting room demonstrated the importance the issue holds.

As the task force prepared to take public comments into the night, all 400 seats in the hall were filled, and people crowded against the walls and into the aisles.

Romanowski said his group was busing people in from Riverside and San Diego. Environmental groups said they had brought hundreds of students from East Los Angeles, Compton, San Diego and Santa Barbara, who were wearing blue shirts showing their support for strong restrictions on fishing.

The Marine Life Protection Act was adopted to protect the state's 1,100-mile coast, setting up a scientifically based network to limit or ban fishing in some areas.

The law was passed after experts said catches of some species, including cod and rockfish, had fallen by as much as 95% in recent decades.

Regulations limiting the number of fish that can be caught have failed to stave off the decline. Marine scientists fear it could lead to a collapse of marine life.

Southern California is the third of five regions in the state to take on the debate. Reserves have been created along the central and north-central portions of the state.

Matthew King of Heal the Bay said that the ocean needs time to replenish itself.

"For decades we have been taking, and you can only take so much," he said. "You have to let the ocean breathe and give back."

Rocky Point is not the only area in Southern California where differences in the proposals have been especially contentious. Others where emotions have run high are Laguna Beach, Point Dume in Malibu, La Jolla, portions of Santa Barbara County and Santa Catalina Island.

Jeff Maassen, vice president of Commercial Fishermen of Santa Barbara Inc., and a member of the stakeholders group, said Rocky Point is filled with sea bass, bonita, barracuda and calico bass as well as bottom feeders such as lobster, sea urchins and mussels.

"It's an area very dear to sport and commercial fishing," he said. "It's a very healthy area teeming with biodiversity. People go out there and catch their dinner. That's very important."

Those supporting the pro-fishing proposal said that not only will those out on boats be hurt by tough restrictions, but so will bait-and-tackle shops, charter services and marinas.

"If Rocky Point closes, many people have said they'll give up their boats," said Sean Guthrie, who owns King Harbor in Redondo Beach. "They'll pull them out of the water and sell them."

Allyson Adams, who had come from Malibu to speak in favor of the restrictions at Point Dume, offered another view. "These sacrifices are the growing pains for a shrinking planet," she said.

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jeff.gottlieb@latimes.com

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