By BRETT WILKISON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
After years of meetings, some protests and what many are calling a rare consensus among sometimes-opposing factions, a draft
proposal to establish a chain of ocean wilderness areas from Mendocino County north to the Oregon border was unveiled last week by state officials.
It would set aside 19 marine protected areas encompassing about 136 square miles from just north of Point Arena to the state line, a distance of about 225 miles.
The proposed network of state reserves and conservation zones includes four existing areas and 15 new ones. It would restrict or ban fishing in about 13 percent of state waters along Mendocino, Humboldt and Del Norte counties.
Fishermen, environmental leaders and others who helped select the areas said they were meant to maximize protection of sensitive ecosystems while minimizing impacts on the coastal economy.
They include reserves off Ten Mile Beach and Cape Mendocino north of Fort Bragg, about a half-dozen conservation areas near the mouths of rivers and zones to protect offshore reefs and rocks.
Most were kept away from harbors or other frequented near-shore areas.
“We made accommodations and set it up in a way that would try to meet everyone’s needs,” said Dave Jensen, president of the Mendocino Coast Audubon Society, one of several environmental groups involved in the process.
The compromise, many of those involved said, makes the North Coast an outlier in the bruising process that kicked off after a 1999 state law called for a redesign — effectively an expansion — of California’s network of protected marine areas.
Work in recent years on the rest of the coast south of Mendocino — including the stretch from Sonoma County to Pigeon Point, in southern San Mateo County — produced pitched battles over the number and extent of ocean areas that should be off-limits or have restrictions on human activity.
Fishing interests saw a threat to their industry and sought to limit the reserves, while conservation supporters fought for more ocean wilderness, touting ecological benefits they said would boost fish stocks.
Fishermen have remained skeptical of those claims. Their concerns fired North Coast meetings, several of which featured protests, including demonstrations by tribal members opposed to restrictions on their rights to use ancestral fishing grounds.
But where passions led those in other regions to put forward dueling plans, representatives of various North Coast interests forged an agreement around a single vision for the future marine areas.
Some credited the outcome to the evolving, crossbred identity of the region, which has long relied on the sea and forests for jobs, but also has served in recent decades as an outpost of environmental activism.
“Most of us have interests that are on both sides of the table,” said Jensen, the Audubon leader. “We all live in the same small communities.”
Others said it was the result of a hands-on approach by local representatives.
“A lot of the battle was to get the state to accept that the conditions up here were unique,” said Adam Wagschal, who represented the Humboldt Bay Harbor District on a stakeholder panel that included tribal leaders, sport and commercial fishermen, seafood vendors, kelp harvesters, abalone divers and environmental advocates.
He called the compromise “incredible,” an assessment echoed by other participants and observers last week when the state Department of Fish and Game released a draft environmental impact report for the North Coast marine areas. The step started a 45-day public comment period that will feature hearings in Fort Bragg, Crescent City and Eureka.
All sides made significant concessions in the proposal, those involved said.
Environmental interests said it offered less protected areas than they would have wanted, and fishermen said it set aside more grounds than they would have preferred.
“It wasn’t smooth sailing all the way,” said John Gebers, owner of the Noyo Fishing Center, the Fort Bragg tackle shop and charter boat agency. “I won’t stand here and say we’re all happy with it.”
He nevertheless called the proposal “pretty darn impressive.”
It left unanswered a significant question for tribes, who want unfettered access to the protected areas, including the reserves where fishing would be banned, to continue traditional harvesting practices.
About two dozen tribes and tribal communities are pushing the state Fish and Game Commission to allow for those uses — an exception not granted elsewhere along the coast.
The tribes have backed the proposal in concept, if not in final form, while reserving the right to challenge a larger question, the state’s authority over their fishing rights, said John Corbett, attorney for the Yurok tribe.
“We haven’t signed off,” Corbett said, “but we’re making a lot of progress toward something we can agree on.”
State and local government officials said they are optimistic about reaching an agreement with the tribes but could not offer further details.
The proposal also has its share of doubters.
Jim Burns, commissioner of Fort Bragg’s Noyo Harbor, resigned from the stakeholder panel last year, protesting what he said was the lack of any baseline research that could prove the value of protected areas for improving fisheries.
“How can you tell the program is good or bad if you don’t have a benchmark?” Burns said. “It didn’t make sense to me.”
Still, defiant voices appear to be a minority on the North Coast. The region’s late order in the statewide process — it is the fourth of five regions to draft plans for marine areas, the last being interior San Francisco Bay — may have been a factor, some observers suggested.
Many fishermen to the south have made their peace with the reserves, and word gets out.
“So far, it really hasn’t presented a problem,” said Rick Powers, a Bodega Bay charter boat captain. He said compliance appeared to be “excellent” with the 21 protected areas on the coastal stretch that includes Sonoma County — what the state calls the North Central Coast, from Point Arena to Pigeon Point, north of Santa Cruz.
Altogether, the California coastline now has more than 124 marine protected areas covering about 848 square miles, or about 16 percent of coastal waters.
“It hasn’t hampered our efforts,” Powers said, “and although I can’t speak for them, most of the commercial fishermen would probably agree.”
You can reach Staff Writer Brett Wilkison at 521-5295 or firstname.lastname@example.org.