As local representatives head into a final round of meetings on drafting marine reserves for the North Coast, they may be close to an agreement on a unified proposal that will be submitted to state rule makers.
The California Resources Agency is currently weighing a request by State Assemblyman Wesley Chesbro, D-Arcata, to delay the process for six months, which the lawmaker said would allow time for that single proposal to be completed. It would also hand off the final decision on the protected areas to the administration that follows Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's, which has pledged to see through the planning of a system of marine reserves.
Others say a delay on the North Coast could wear down the 33 members of the Regional Stakeholder Group, who have already wrestled for months with the task of mapping out areas that would be off limits or restricted to fishing and gathering. It may also allow tribes time to mount a legal or legislative challenge over the state trying to regulate traditional uses of marine areas.
Stakeholder group member and Humboldt Area Saltwater Anglers representative Ben Doane said there appears to be some differences regarding the size of some of the marine protected areas - MPAs - but that there could soon be an agreement. The group meets Aug. 30 through Sept. 1 at the Fortuna River Lodge.
Doane said that it may be worth securing a delay to allow a new governor's administration the chance to take a closer look at the anticipated economic harm to fishing communities on the coast.
"Once it goes into effect you'll see a loss of coastal-related business," Doane said.
Some think that even if the stakeholders come up with a single plan, the tribes will still not accept state restrictions on their fishing and gathering. Humboldt Bay Harbor, Recreational and Conservation District Conservation Director Adam Wagschal said that early in the process, the California Department of Fish and Game told the group that it is illegal for the state to regulate one group and not another.
There is now talk about legislation that could be adopted after the MPAs are finalized that would exempt traditional tribal uses. A six-month delay, Wagschal said, may give parties the chance to resolve that issue before the MPAs are complete.
The Marine Life Protection Act was passed in 1999, and state agencies aborted two attempts at generating MPAs before entering into a public-private partnership with the Resources Legacy Foundation and other nonprofit groups to push along the planning process. The Marine Life Protection Act Initiative moved from area to area along the coast, with the North Coast being the fourth of five designated planning zones. The North Coast Regional Stakeholder Group first met in February.
The group is charged with mapping out several MPAs of various sizes and types - ranging from the most restrictive to the least restrictive to fishing and gathering - along the coast, and including different types of marine habitats. The groups' final proposal or proposals will be submitted to a Blue Ribbon Task Force appointed by the governor, which can make changes before sending the package on to the California Fish and Game Commission, currently scheduled to meet in December.
North Coast interests have long felt that submitting a single, unified proposal would give local people the most control over the final product and minimize economic harm and undue restriction of fishing and gathering.
Chesbro's office is strongly urging a delay to make sure that happens, said spokesman Andy Bird.
"He feels like there is movement in that direction," Bird said. "We just need more time."
Bird said that there has not yet been any word from Resources Secretary Lester Snow on the request.
Resources Agency spokesman Sandy Cooney pointed out that a six-week extension to the process was granted in October at Chesbro's request. Cooney said the office has not received a formal, written request for another delay, but may have to make a decision on it anyway.
"We are in discussions with the assemblyman and his office as to whether or not that's going to be possible," Cooney said.
However, the Schwarzenegger administration has vowed to complete the planning process before the January transition. Even if it does, it's unclear where the cash-strapped state would find the money necessary to enforce the MPAs or to monitor their effectiveness.
Stakeholder group member Pete Nichols, with the environmental group Humboldt Baykeeper, said that a few months ago, he would have supported a six-month delay. But it now appears that the group is on track to meet the deadline for a proposal, Nichols said. He believes that there is a good chance a unified proposal put together through a collaboration of commercial and recreational fishermen will come out of the group's meeting at the end of the month.
"I think having a unified proposal and complete buy-in from the fishers will help from an enforcement standpoint (because Fish and Game) certainly doesn't have the budget for enforcement," Nichols wrote in an e-mail, "and without that, what is the point of MPAs?"
While the Blue Ribbon Task Force can alter whatever proposal is submitted, most North Coast interests believe that a single, strongly supported plan would be less likely to be significantly changed.
Humboldt County Supervisor and Blue Ribbon Task Force member Jimmy Smith said that such a proposal submitted by people with substantial knowledge of the coastline should generate confidence from the task force. Smith said the task force needs to understand that the North Coast is a poster child for fisheries conservation, with existing and wide-ranging closures and regulations that have significantly protected fish and other marine life.
While Smith said a short delay in the process may be helpful, he worried that a long delay of six months might grind down the stakeholders group and the community.
"They're worn, they're tired, they have compromised," Smith said.
Just what a change in administration will bring is difficult to determine, but it is widely believed that gubernatorial candidate Attorney General Jerry Brown would support the MLPA process. Republican candidate Meg Whitman has yet to indicate her position on the MLPA, or how it might be implemented while the state faces a projected $20 billion budget deficit.
Neither campaign responded to requests to outline their positions on the MLPA process to the Times-Standard by deadline last Wednesday.
A delay in the process may sap momentum from the MLPA process, said Eureka commercial fisherman Dave Bitts, and help get more information out to the public to demonstrate that they aren't needed. But he added that Schwarzenegger appears committed to making the issue a matter of legacy, regardless of its effect on coastal communities, and any delay to that would be welcome.
"Sixty years would be better," Bitts said.
John Driscoll covers natural resources/industry. He can be reached at 441-0504 or email@example.com.