By Hilary Corrigan
Triplicate staff writer
The process remains at least two years off and 200 miles away.
But California's effort to redesign its marine protected areas eventually will reach Del Norte County's coast.
Last month, the Marine Life Protection Act Initiative began focusing on the North Central Coast Study Region. That area stretches from Alder Creek, just north of Point Arena, to Pigeon Point, near San Francisco.
"It's close enough that hopefully, folks will at least follow the process," said Melissa Miller-Henson, operations and communications manager with the Marine Life Protection Act Initiative. "It gives them an idea."
Some local officials and scientists plan to watch.
"It's headed our way, and there's a lot of concern over what the implications will be," said Crescent City Harbormaster Richard Young. "What are we doing to get ready for it? Nothing, at this point."
In 1999, the state Legislature approved the Marine Life Protection Act requiring the state to draft a Marine Life Protection Program and set up a network of marine protected areas along California's coast.
"The concept is good," said Jim Waldvogel, area marine advisor with the University of California Sea Grant Extension in Del Norte County. "It really depends on how they intend to use them and that's probably going to change from area to area."
After a start and stop approach and a lack of funding, the initiative last year recommended marine protection areas for the Central Coast Study Region that stretches from Pigeon Point to Point Conception. The state's fish and game commission could adopt that plan in the spring.
The effort still must address the Bay Area, the coastline stretching from Point Conception to the Mexico border and the north coast from Point Arena to the Oregon border.
California now hosts 61 marine protected areas along its coast, along with 19 estuarine areas that run inland from a bay or estuary. But they fail to connect to each other on a biological basis, Miller-Henson said. They also lack purpose and the tools to measure their success at preserving habitat and aquatic life.
"We have this mish-mash out there," Miller-Henson said. "The focus is not on individual species. It's really on protecting habitat and ecosystems."
The initiative aims to shift resource management from single-species protection toward a broader ecosystem focus.
"The goal of the law is protecting biodiversity," said Susan Schlosser, a marine advisor at the Sea Grant Program of the University of California at Davis who served on the MLPA science advisory team for the central coast region.
The plan uses three different categories.
Marine reserves ban any extraction or taking from certain areas, preventing oil, sand, mineral, fishing. Marine parks prevent commercial extraction or takings, allowing only recreational fishing and other activities. Conservation areas allow a mix of limited recreational and commercial fishing and takings.
The impact from such designations could send the final blow to a flailing local commercial fishing industry, Young said.
"That's the concern," he said, wondering if the protected areas could mark good fishing spots as off-limits. "That's what's going to determine the economic impact."
But the designations could prevent habitat and species loss, said Frank Shaughnessy, associate professor of botany at Humboldt State University.
"(It's) something proactive rather than reactive," Shaughnessy said. "The point is conservation of the marine life to the benefit of all."
Marine management areas can help, Waldvogel said, but scientists lack data about their effectiveness and how large an area is needed to protect certain species.
"You should kind of tailor them," Waldvogel said. "You don't want to blanket the whole ocean."
The process to map marine protected areas entails drafting profiles for each region with information on the community and the people that use the ocean fishermen, surfers, beachgoers, among others. A team of scientists, a regional group of stakeholders and a policy-crafting task force study each region and its existing marine protected areas.
Waldvogel will watch the process in the north-central coast region as well as an effort in Oregon.
Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski proposed naming that state's coast a National Marine Sanctuary. The move aims to block offshore drilling for oil and gas, draw more tourists, secure federal funding, boost research efforts and partner state, federal, tribal and other groups in managing the coast.
Shaughnessy points to coastal management techniques in Australia and New Zealand and national estuarine and research reserves set up in waters off of San Francisco and Oregon.
"Maybe one of these mechanisms is a better way to go," he said.
Harbor officials will monitor the process, as well.
"This is on everybody's radar screen," Young said. "It's not today's crisis."
Follow the process
A state Web site regularly posts meeting dates, a Web cast of meetings and an archive of videotaped meetings. Visit www.dfg.ca.gov/mrd/mlpa.