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Karen Garrison’s Blog

An Ocean Legacy to Make Californians Proud

Karen Garrison

Posted December 17, 2012

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Shargel Diver.JPG

Photo courtesy of Marc Shargel

After more than a century of enjoying parks and wilderness on land, we Californians can celebrate the completion of a new park system—this time under the waves. On December 19, new underwater parks will take effect along California’s rugged north coast, completing the first statewide network of safe havens for ocean wildlife in the entire nation. 

Established under the landmark Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA), these underwater parks (known as marine protected areas) will help restore the resilience of ocean life. As studies increasingly show, marine protected areas keep fragile habitats like coral and kelp healthier.  They harbor more big prolific fish, which means more young and more fish for the future. In California, protected areas now dot the coastline like a string of pearls, covering about 16 percent of our state waters and safeguarding the spiritual and economic benefits that come with a rich web of ocean life.

Behind this important outcome is a tale of the twelve-year journey that got us to this point. 

For me, the story began in the late 1990s, when overfishing forced the shut-down of commercial abalone fishing in California and news of depleted rockfish populations was spreading from port to port. I got a call from Jim Donlon, an avid sport fisherman who mourned the loss of the big fish he used to catch near the Channel Islands. Conversations with scientists had convinced him the best way to bring those fish back was to designate part of the ocean around the islands off limits to fishing.  For Jim, this was no sacrifice—it was a matter of enlightened self-interest. With a host of local citizens and the blessing of the Fish and Game Commission and the National Marine Sanctuary, Jim set in motion an effort that ultimately established protected areas around the northern Channel Islands.

But the problem of dwindling and vulnerable marine resources wasn’t limited to Jim’s fishing grounds. A 1997 Sea Grant report found that far less than one percent of state waters were fully protected.  Visionary legislative leaders wanted to move beyond crisis management and bring the state’s ocean stewardship into the 21st Century. With conservation groups, fishermen, scientists, and others, those leaders crafted the Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA), aiming to establish a statewide network of protected areas to help revitalize California’s ocean waters. Originally passed and vetoed in 1998, the bill finally won enactment in 1999 with broad bipartisan support.

But the hardest part still lay ahead. After initially floundering to find an inclusive way to carry out the act, the state made a turnaround in 2004. Partnering with foundations, it created the MLPA Initiative, which moved to involve the public in every stage of the process. This new approach meant that groups of citizens in four coastal regions would design protected areas, with evaluations by scientists and guidance from an expert panel.

This approach didn’t eliminate disagreement, but it did create a structure that encouraged us to find common ground. From charter boat captains to marine mammal experts, those of us who served on those groups learned firsthand what others cared about and why. We learned where rocky reefs, submarine canyons, kelp forests and fish nursery grounds were located, and we learned to work together. Meetings were intense and transformative, as livelihoods and personal ideals were always at stake.

The Initiative faced one challenge after another, responding with flexibility to meet the needs of all Californians. For example, many Indian tribes in the north coast region depend on cultural traditions of harvesting shellfish, kelp, and fish. The entire stakeholder group agreed to uphold those traditions, designing protected areas that either avoided traditional sites or provided for continued traditional use in marine conservation areas. Ultimately, north coast citizens stood together behind a single unified plan.

The final piece of California’s marine protected area network will go into effect this month, but the story will continue. A Monitoring Enterprise is working with citizens, fishermen and scientists to study the impacts of these protected areas. Their research will help inform future policy. Partnerships formed during the design process—with tide pool managers, scuba diving groups, schools, and nonprofits—are expanding to help inform and engage citizens and foster compliance. The success of the network depends on good stewardship from all of us.

Healthy oceans are central to our wellbeing. The good news is that California has invested in protection that will help our oceans thrive. By incorporating scientific principles and the interests of a full range of citizens, the final network combines ecological value with social and cultural staying power. The result is a groundbreaking achievement for our oceans, and a model for public engagement in protecting wildlife and ecosystems. And perhaps most importantly, it helps sustain the very thing that sustains us.

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