The state's new marine protection areas include a lengthy stretch… (Mark Boster / Los Angeles…)
Reporting from Santa Barbara — More than 350 square miles of ocean from Point Conception to the U.S.-Mexico border — about 15% of the Southern California coast — will be protected under a network of marine reserves narrowly approved by state wildlife officials.
The 3-2 vote Wednesday by the California Fish and Game Commission bans or restricts fishing in 49 protected marine areas designed to replenish depleted fish populations and protect marine life.
The regulations come more than a decade after state legislators passed the California Marine Life Protection Act, which charged Fish and Game officials with establishing a statewide chain of sanctuaries.
Wednesday's vote was the final approval after two years of contentious negotiations between conservation groups pushing for strict curbs on fishing to preserve marine habitat and recreational anglers and commercial fishing groups wary of losing territory.
California has led the nation in establishing marine reserves, an idea conceived in response to steep population declines of rockfish, cod, lobster, abalone and other ocean dwellers despite catch limits and other fishing regulations.
Scientists who helped draft the plan argued that some species could disappear entirely without fishing bans in a diverse assortment of underwater canyons, kelp forests, sandy seafloors and rocky reefs.
Commissioner Richard B. Rogers voted in favor of the plan, saying it struck an "elegant balance" between conservation and fishing interests.
"The overarching goal is to return California to the sustainable abundance I observed growing up," the lifelong scuba diver said.
Commissioner Michael Sutton, founding director of the Center for the Future of the Oceans at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, called the protections "good news for everyone who cares about the future of our fisheries and the future of our marine ecosystems."
The state Department of Fish and Game is implementing the plan in segments, dividing the coastline into four areas, plus a fifth covering San Francisco Bay.
The five Southern California counties that make up the state's most populous stretch of coastline are the third region where the protected areas were established, following the central and north-central portions of the state.
The intense, year-round use of Southern California waters for recreational fishing and the relative scarcity of rocky reef habitat in the area meant that the key places conservationists zeroed in on to protect were the same spots anglers sought to keep for fishing.
In some instances, environmentalists got what they wanted, winning protections for a large kelp forest off Point Dume, Naples Reef in Santa Barbara County and a lengthy stretch of Laguna Beach coastline.
Fishing groups prevailed in keeping Rocky Point, a richly populated reef off Palos Verdes Peninsula, and most of the waters off La Jolla open to fishing.
The move to close some waters to fishing has been fiercely resisted by commercial and recreational fishing businesses based in harbors dotting the Southern California coastline, with some lobbyists denying that fish populations were excessively harvested or depleted.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has advocated for the implementation of marine protections before he leaves office.
Fish and Game Commission President Jim Kellogg, who voted against the marine protections, said the Schwarzenegger administration "tried to slam dunk this thing before they leave town."
Although the total size of the underwater reserves fell short of scientists recommendation to protect at least 20% of near-shore waters, conservationists said the strong protections adopted in some areas could preserve marine habitat for future generations.
The protections are likely to take effect sometime in 2011, with about 12% of near-shore waters designated as State Marine Reserves and "no-take" areas that are off-limits to fishing, and 3% designated as State Marine Conservation Areas that allow limited commercial and recreational fishing.
Game wardens will be charged with enforcing the fishing restrictions. Researchers will monitor the reserves' effectiveness in boosting fish populations.