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State moves to protect marine areas, not just species in the ocean

A kelp bed off the Palos Verdes peninsula.
Molly Peterson/KPCC
A kelp bed off the Palos Verdes peninsula.

State fish and game commissioners will vote soon on new rules for patches of the ocean between Santa Barbara and the Mexico border. It's taken years of negotiation among fishermen, environmentalists, and others who use the coast to develop these marine protected areas.

Among those is Mike Sutton: "We have to stay pretty close to the shore," he says as he unrolls and points to an aeronautical chart for Los Angeles.

That's no problem for Sutton — everything he does keeps him close to the shore. His main job is at the Center for the Future of the Oceans at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. On this day he pilots a small plane carefully across busy airspace to a busy coast, volunteering for Lighthawk, an organization that does public education for environmental issues.

"Look down," Sutton says. Seventy percent of Californians live within an hour of the shore, many below us in Santa Monica and Malibu. 

"For all the development on land you've got pretty intact offshore resources. You can see from the air how the development is right against the ocean in many cases," he says.

Behind pilot's shades, Sutton talks to air traffic controllers: "Okay, we're going to lock in some waypoints here..."

California's designing a patchwork of protection. It's setting aside regions in the ocean to guard the coastal ecosystem against threats like pollution, habitat loss and global warming — made more intense by people.

That's Sutton's other job — the one that courts controversy. He's one of 5 fish and game commissioners who will vote on marine protected areas created under the Marine Life Protection Act for the South Coast. That vote is likely to limit what Californians can take from the ocean. The decision's not solely about fishing, but human take from the sea is a huge factor in the decision to close certain areas.

"We may not be able to do much about climate change in the near term but we can damn well control fishing better than we do now," he says.

We bank over a spot fishermen love: the submarine canyon at Malibu's Point Dume. Giant, thick amber-brown kelp rises to the surface, and sways in the waves.

"I like to think of kelp as the redwoods of the sea," Sutton says.

Marine Protected Areas: View from Above
The upcoming fish and game vote is likely to limit fishermen's catch in and near those kelp forests — just one site of this two-year tug of war.

On a boat near the Palos Verdes Peninsula, Heal the Bay's Sarah Sikich scopes out Rocky Point. It too is thick with kelp. Sikich is a scientist, one of 60 volunteers who helped draw the marine protection proposals. On the compromise map, Rocky Point didn't make the cut.

"Conservation groups wanted to see it protected but it's also a place spearfishermen love to go and other fishermen love and ultimately it wasn't included in the final set of maps," Sikich says.

Sikich says kelp is biogenic habitat: a living thing that feeds others. Under its canopy lobster, bass, sheephead and other species thrive.

"By protecting the entire habitat you protect everything in it from the things that live in the bottom like little worms to the top predators, like sharks," she says.

Southern Californians involved with the Marine Life Protection Act
These aren't California's first closings. But these protected areas are the first to consider the whole picture: how marine species develop and move across areas, and how the food web works, with the aim of sustaining a healthy system. Spatial management is an evolution in thinking about marine policy.

"Historically we've protected things on a single species level, with fisheries management, like abalone, rockfish, kelp bass," she says.

Federal and state authorities still manage fisheries one-by-one. "We're not looking at their prey or the things that prey on them. It hasn't been very successful."

The compromise plan going forward draws limit zones over nearly 12 percent of the South Coast waters, and closes fishing in 7 percent. Urchin diver Bob Bertelli says that may not sound like much.

"But it's the most valuable ocean," he says, with a sardonic smirk.

This is the first in a two-part series looking at the Marine Life Protection Act. Tuesday, we'll hear more from Bob Bertelli and others about what's at stake in making marine protected areas and what the negotiations about them have revealed.

(Aerial support provided by Lighthawk - a volunteer-based aviation organization that flies people over areas to illuminate the environmental issues below.)