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Marine protected areas and their science controversial among fishermen

Sea urchin diver Bob Bertelli
Mike Roe/KPCC
Sea urchin diver Bob Bertelli

California fish and game officials will soon consider new protections for 12 percent of coastal waters between Santa Barbara and the Mexican border. Under the Marine Life Protection Act, no fishing would be permitted in 7 percent of South Coast waters. It's a proposal that has sparked new conversations about ocean science and the ocean economy.

"My name is Bob Bertelli," the man with a brushy moustache says. "I'm a sea urchin diver. I also dive for sea cucumbers. And I live right here on my boat in Fish Harbor."

Bertelli strings together longer trips to make his money, trips of several days. Bad weather's prevented him from doing that. So instead we watch another urchin fisherman weigh and ticket his catch - hundreds of pounds in a long day's work.

At its best urchin tastes briny, buttery sweet, even nutty. That's what sushi fans say. Bertelli says this time of year is a sweet spot for harvesting urchins.

"They tend to be very good quality this time of year. The market's down a bit but it will pick up because of the Japanese holidays. The uni craze has gotten big in the states, too," he points out.

Sea urchin fishing off San Pedro Bay.
Bertelli's been fishing urchin for 30 years. He used to fish abalone - people fished abalone hard, he says - until it collapsed in the eighties.

"We were harvesting at probably a sustainable level until this disease hit the abalone population called withering foot. The abalones out here, the pinks and greens are just now starting to make a comeback. It's taken years and years because they're a relatively slow growing species," he says.

In contrast, he says, the urchin fishery has taken more precautions - sharing catch data, even paying a scientist for annual studies. Bertelli has followed the science informing protected areas.

"There are areas of production called source. And areas that supposedly collect the larva called sinks. But a lot of these areas are both - sources and sinks. So its not always clear."

Bertelli says that's evidence academics aren't always the best informed about the sea. Resource economist Astrid Scholz says his skepticism is a gentler view than what a lot of fishermen have told her - which is that "MPAs [Marine protected areas] are a terrible idea, but if they have to have them they would like the state to understand what areas are significant to them."

Marine Protected Areas: View from the Water.
Cal Fish and Game contracted Scholtz, who works for Oregon-based Ecotrust, to survey south coast fishermen for this process. Scholz says the state really didn't have deep research on fishery economics.

"Socioeconomic data collection in California and elsewhere really lags behind about 20 or 30 years compared to biophysical data, oceanography even habitat mapping," she says. "We're really talking about a pretty formidable catch up job."

The result, Scholz says: Ecotrust sketched boundaries for what - in the worst case - the closings could do to the fishing economy. She believes more experience and monitoring will keep telling the story.

"There's a lot of good work the state can do, set up really good monitoring projects and keep the fishermen engaged," Scholz says.

(Ecotrust's final report is available here.)

Ecotrust's information is stronger for some fisheries than others. And the final closure spots don't exactly follow the group's report. But Bertelli agrees that even against tighter margins for fishermen, the urchin fishery looks strong. He wants it to stay that way, and he admits the science of marine spatial planning may help with that.

"We're all for good management," he says.

Making the maps for South Coast marine protected areas was a crowded and noisy process. Fish and game commissioners might yet tweak them again. Bertelli says the process already created something valuable to ocean management - better communication.

"A lot of environmentalists I got to work with, we've found that common ground. They understand that fishermen are not the neanderthals like maybe they thought, and we know that not all enviros are wackos. And we basically want the same thing," he says.

That's not to say that the Fish and Game vote will be free from tension. But Bertelli says developing the likely closures has encouraged more people to talk across the aisle. As the state looks to managing and monitoring these areas, that's a start.

This is the second in a two-part series looking at the Marine Life Protection Act.