Letters to the Editor

Viewpoint: Good intentions, bad result

Sylvia Earle’s commentary (“A needed sea change for Southern California,” Oct. 22) does a great job of romanticizing the Marine Life Protection Act.

Unfortunately, the actual MLPA concept and implementation are a great example of the paradox of the “do-gooder”; in other words, good intentions, combining with ignorance, arrogance and prejudice, leading to a bad result.

I have been a commercial fisherman since 1973, fishing albacore, diving for sea urchins and most recently adding open access ground fishing (i.e. black cod) to my means of livelihood. Over the years I have seen commercial fishing demonized regularly in the media. Almost all the publicity about fishing has been negative. We see the same tired film clips of methods of fishing that have been severely curtailed or wrongly interpreted. Over and over we are hit with the message that fishing is wrong and fishermen are greedy, shortsighted sub-humans.

Most people continue to have the impression that fish stocks here in California are overfished. This simply is not the case. There is a federal law called the Magnuson-Stevens Act that mandates that every fishery must have a management plan that either achieves a sustainable level of harvest based on scientific information, or when there is insufficient information, adopts a conservative level of harvest to ensure that stocks are not depleted before they can be studied. We have had a series of increasingly drastic measures imposed on us, which have resulted, along with some hardship, in rebounding stocks in many fisheries that were formerly in trouble.

Fishing grounds closed

So what is wrong with the MLPA? In San Luis Obispo County, the governor’s blue-ribbon task force asked fishermen to cooperate and identify their most productive areas ostensibly to minimize the impact of closures on fishermen.

I spoke with a local fisherman coming out of the meeting where they announced that the blue-ribbon task force had decided to adopt the most restrictive plan. He told me that they were closing 80 percent of the areas he had identified as being productive in his fishery.

The bottom line is that they closed 17 percent of the coast in our county, but because the blue-ribbon task force was concerned with preserving the “most productive” areas, the effect was to permanently close 80 percent of what fishermen call the fishing grounds.

This is a travesty. It is a classic example of good intentions gone wrong because of ignorance, arrogance and prejudice. Ignorance because I can’t believe they realized what the effect will be on fishermen, arrogance because they are unwilling to compromise or listen to fishermen, and prejudice because they seem to feel that because they are out to do good their logic is unassailable, while because fishermen have a financial stake in the outcome their experience and logic are automatically discredited.

The results of the MLPA are analogous to the state deciding to create preserves from farmland and going on to close the Salinas, San Joaquin and Sacramento valleys permanently to farming. Do you suppose that would fly? It would never even be proposed because it would be politically impossible as well as stupid.

Achievable goals

In my opinion the goals of the MLPA could be entirely achieved without confiscating the majority of the fishing grounds.

Indeed, an upper limit should be placed on how much of the identified fishing grounds can be closed and this limit should be 10 percent or less.

It is public record that at the same time the California Department of Fish and Game was deliberating on what plan to accept, the proponents of the most restrictive plan were dangling millions of dollars for boats and personnel to enforce the new preserves in front of them to encourage them to choose the most restrictive plan. The department should have known better, but what underfunded government agency can ignore huge sums of money, especially when they can pat themselves on the back for being extra “green” afterward?

Despite all the indoctrination we have received to the contrary, the ocean is a bounteous producer of fish. The sun keeps shining; the kelp and other photosynthesizing organisms grow, sustaining an array of diverse creatures.

The overfishing of the past is not to be confused with the effective, often overly conservative, regulation online today. We don’t need closed areas to prevent decimation of fish populations. This can and should be achieved by effective management, so that we can have access to the bounty that naturally occurs. Reduce fishing if stocks decline, but leave room to increase it again when stocks rebound. By permanently closing off access to the best fishing grounds you deny fishermen their occupation, and you deny the population the benefit of abundant wild fish to eat.

The rights of fishermen and the true interests of society have been trampled. Injustice has been done. The only hope for redress is an investigation by some impartial government body to sift the actual facts of what state the fisheries are in and what impact closing off access to so much of the fishing grounds will have. And impartial means a body run by and composed of people not vetted for their environmental purity; people who will seek out and listen to both sides of the story.

Is this too much to ask? Atascadero resident Alan Alward is a member of the Morro Bay Commercial Fishermen’s Organization.