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California completes marine sanctuaries from Oregon to Mexico

June 6, 2012 |  7:28 pm

California wildlife officials Wednesday approved the final link in the nation's first comprehensive statewide chain of marine sanctuaries. 

The state Fish and Game Commission voted to ban or restrict fishing in 137 square miles of the North Coast as part of a network of more than 100 science-based Marine Protected Areas that stretch along the open coastline from Mexico to Oregon. 

The 27 designated areas, which cover 13% of state waters from Mendocino County to the Oregon border, have various levels of protection intended to help replenish dwindling fish populations. They make up the fourth segment of protected waters the state is charged with setting aside under the 1999 Marine Life Protection Act. The state has already adopted restrictions in Central and Southern California, leaving only San Francisco Bay.

The North Coast's array of sandy sea floor, rocky reefs, underwater canyons, kelp forest and eelgrass beds span some of the most remote coastline in the state and were chosen to safeguard a diverse assortment of marine habitat for future generations.

“We are going to reap the benefits of this for many years to come,” said Fish and Game Commission Vice President Michael Sutton, founding director of the Center for the Future of the Oceans at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Over the last decade scientists have helped craft similar fishing restrictions up and down the state in an effort to curb steep fish population declines that threaten to wipe out some of the most vulnerable species. With Wednesday's vote, about 16 % of state waters, which extend about three miles from the shore, will be protected.

The specific boundaries and restrictions for the North Coast were hammered out over several years of meetings with fishing groups, environmentalists and Native American tribes.

Some "no-take" reserves will be off-limits to anglers, while other conservation areas allow limited fishing. In a compromise with Native Americans, the state will allow tribes to continue to harvest and gather fish, kelp and shellfish in certain areas where they have ancestral food-gathering traditions.

Fishing groups have resisted the marine protection zones up and down the state because it means losing access to prime harvesting waters. But the new regulations drew a round of applause following a unanimous vote at a public hearing in Eureka, an indication of the unusual level of consensus reached by fishing groups, environmentalists and tribal leaders.

Some of the most contentious fishing restrictions in the state -- Southern California’s array of 50 marine sanctuaries -- took effect Jan. 1 after years of heated negotiations and delays.

The North Coast fishing regulations are expected to begin early next year. 

-- Tony Barboza