California Gets Nation’s Largest Marine Park System

The idea that protecting wildlife habitat does good things for the wildlife might sound like Animal Conservation 101. But to many fishermen along the California coast, the amount of protection needed to link up a statewide network of undersea parks was just too extreme. And for some, it was an issue worth fighting for — literally.

“We got death threats,” Richard B. Rogers, a member of the California Fish and Game Commission, told the Los Angeles Times. “There were threats of physical violence.”

Now after 13 years of legal sparring and nasty protests that pitted the American Sportfishing Association against conservationists, the fishermen were silenced last week as the largest underwater park in the continental U.S. was completed California.

The park system is a patchwork of marine reserves that stretches from the Mexican border to the edge of southern Oregon. Tuna, sea otters, and rockfish were the first to get protection on the Central Coast in 2007, followed by iconic South Coast spots like La Jolla and Big Sur earlier this year. The final stretch was the North Coast, which links 19 marine parks harboring critical salmon and steelhead habitat, from Fort Bragg to the Oregon border. In all, the system protects 848 square miles of waters — a whopping 16 percent of the state’s waters.

Ironically, it was a Southern California sport fisherman who unofficially launched the project in the late 1990s by helping to establish marine reserves along the coast of the Channel Islands to allow fish to recover from over-harvesting. In 1999, the Marine Life Protection Act gave the network credibility and an official mission. And it was another sport fisherman, Rogers, who helped usher it through to completion when Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger appointed him to Fish and Game in 2004.

The idea was that setting up preserves in strategic locations along the coastline would help replenish entire fisheries. If fish could grow to their full size and produce larvae that were carried by currents to other coastal areas, from kelp forests to underwater canyons to sandy bottoms, the entire region would benefit. As would the fishermen who caught the whoppers that occasionally wandered out of the preserves.

Most of the network is completely closed to fishermen, a fact that led to loud objections by the American Sportfishing Association. The organization reportedly organized protests and hired lobbyists to derail the marine parks. A $23 million investment by philanthropic environmentalists pushed the project ahead anyway when state funding dried up.

The undersea system might be the biggest in the nation, but it’s just a blip compared to the one Australia created last month in response to environmental threats to the Great Barrier Reef. That park network, like most things Aussie, is gaping. It stretches from Perth Canyon on the southwestern coast, to Kangaroo Island in the south, to the Coral Sea area surrounding the Great Barrier Reef in the northeast.

At 888,035 square miles, it’s the size of Western Europe. And yet, the number of reported death threats? Zero.

California waters may get even more love if a new proposal by federal agencies to expand protection against oil drilling, seabed mining and ocean dumping in waters further off the coast goes through. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is slated to nearly double the boundaries of national marine sanctuaries surrounding Northern California’s Farallon Islands and Cordell Bank over the course of the next two years. It would be a conservation coup: federal protection for a third of the state’s offshore waters.

Environmental coverage made possible in part by support from Patagonia. For information on Patagonia and its environmental efforts, visit www.patagonia.com. Photo by Shutterstock

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