SAN FRANCISCO — California created another group of ocean protection zones on Wednesday, putting the finishing touches on a vast network of protected areas that dot the sea from Mexico to the Oregon border.
The Fish & Game Commission voted unanimously to approve the new zones off the state's far north coast from Point Arena in Mendocino County to the Oregon border, where fishing is restricted or banned outright in areas.
"We are poised to return California's marine resources to the sustainable abundance we all once enjoyed," said Richard Rogers, a commission member from Santa Barbara, choking up as he cast his vote after more than seven years of work on the project.
The vote was an outgrowth of the 1999 Marine Life Protection Act, which called for a system of marine protected areas along the coast based on scientific study and years of public input.
The idea is that by making certain areas off limits to fishing, or restricting it to certain species in others, struggling marine species will rebound and create a more robust fishery and ecosystem. The approach has been used with success in other areas of the nation and world, including Thunder Bay in Lake Huron and the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.
California divided its coastline into regions that were evaluated for protection by scientists, fishermen, environmentalists and ordinary citizens. Marine protection areas were previously approved for the central and southern coasts.
Officials next set their sights on San Francisco Bay to create protection zones.
Some fishermen have been vigorous opponents of new restrictions or closures in the central and southern coastal areas, saying the restrictions on fishing hurt them disproportionately.
Zeke Grader, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, said banning or restricting fishing in these areas only addresses one of myriad issues with the marine environment. He said poor water quality caused by urban runoff also hurts marine life, and the protection zones do nothing to help that.
"If we're going to have marine protected areas, let's make sure they're in fact protected and not just some feel good regulations about no fishing," he said.
On the state's far northern coast, Native American tribes voiced loud concerns about the new protection zones' effect on their traditional fishing and gathering.
The commission reached a compromise with some tribes, saying if they could provide records of their historic fishing practices they could be exempted from some restrictions.
For the Yurok Tribe, the largest in California, the approved plan was not entirely agreeable, and a number of its elders appeared before the commission to warn them that they will not allow their gathering activities to be stopped.
"We are hunters, fishers and gatherers and we have lived here since time immemorial and gathered these shores forever since creator put us here," David Gensaw Sr., a member of the Yurok Tribal Council, told the commission Wednesday.
"We're here today to tell you that we need that subsistence, and we will continue to provide our people with that nourishment," he said.
Other tribes represented at the meeting applauded the state's process, saying officials had come a long way in recognizing the concerns of Native Americans.
"The start of this process was very difficult and contentious ... but we have ended in a very positive place with a strong framework for future tribal consultation on important conservation and environmental issues," Priscilla Hunter of the InterTribal Sinkyone Wilderness Council, a consortium of 10 federally recognized north coast tribes, said in a statement.
Conservation groups hailed the commission's actions as a big win for marine life, and said that it bodes well for California's troubled sea ecosystem.
"By safeguarding our iconic ocean places – and the rich web of life they support – these jewels of the coast will help revive depleted fish populations and draw people to the coast to enjoy our remarkable marine wildlife," said Karen Garrison of the Natural Resources Defense Council's oceans program.
Jason Dearen can be reached on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/JHDearen