In the mid-1990s when the MLPA was first envisioned, California’s ocean environment was in trouble. Several fish stocks were in decline, and a clear need existed to protect the ocean and its ecosystem. Along with several other legislative actions, California enacted, but did not fund, the MLPA. In combination, these measures were intended to protect the health of our ocean ecosystem. The MLPA was designed to “sustain, conserve and protect” the state’s marine resources through the establishment of a series of designations called marine protected areas (MPAs), including no-fishing areas called marine reserves. The state began implementation shortly after passage of the law, but the effort stalled due to the lack of financial resources.
Since the late-1990s, the health of California’s fisheries improved significantly. Thanks to the enactment and enforcement of important conservation aspects of state and federal laws such as the Marine Life Management Act and the Magnuson-Stevens Act, overfishing along the entire Pacific coast is no longer occurring and California’s marine fish stocks healthy. This approach clearly has demonstrated that fish stocks can be effectively managed and rebuilt under existing, traditional fishery management regulations and without the aid of a massive network of no-fishing zones, particularly given their associated adverse economic and environmental impacts on fishing and coastal communities.
The MLPA is being implemented in five phases by the California Department of Fish and Game under the MLPA Initiative. Final regulations must be adopted by the California Fish and Game Commission, a five-member body regulatory and management authority over California's fish and wildlife resources.
The California Fish and Game Commission approved designations for the first phase, the central coast region, on April 13, 2007. The result is the designation of 29 MPAs representing approximately 204 square miles, or 18 percent of state waters within the central coast study area. Ninety eight square miles, or 8.5 percent of state waters within the region, were designated as no-take state marine reserves. These designations – located from San Mateo County to Santa Barbara County – went into effect officially on Friday, September 21, 2008. ASA was not engaged with this phase and the PSO had not yet been created.
The planning stage of the MLPA in Phase II, which is focused on the north central portion of the coast (NCC), was completed in August 2009 when the California Fish and Game Commission voted to officially designate an MPA array for the area. This area extends from Alder Creek in Mendocino County south to Pigeon Point in San Mateo County. While the proposal supported by the PSO and anglers was not selected, the final proposed MPA network reflected approximately 85 percent of the recommendations made by anglers. The result was the designation of 30 MPAs representing approximately 153 square miles, or 20 percent, of state waters within the NCC study area. Eighty five square miles, or 11 percent, of this region was designated as no-take state marine reserves.
The third phase – the South Coast Study Region – formally began in August 2008. Phase III encompasses southern California from Point Conception (just above Santa Barbara) south to the Mexico border. The PSO lobbied for a proposed MPA network that had the least economic impact yet similar conservation value as other proposals.
After a swift public review and comment period, the Commission voted to approve a more restrictive plan during its December 2010 meeting. After a lengthy regulatory approval process, the MPA regulations went into effect on January 1, 2012. In total, this network consists of 50 MPAs, including 13 pre-existing MPAs retained at the northern Channel Islands, and two special closures covering approximately 354 square miles of state waters and represents approximately 15 percent of the region.
The North Coast regional process started June 2009 with a series of introductory workshops and open houses. Unlike the other phases of the MLPA in which stakeholder groups created multiple proposals, the North Coast stakeholder group developed a single, unified proposal, which it forwarded to the Blue Ribbon Task Force in September 2010. On June 6, 2012, the Commission adopted a MPA plan for the North Coast, creating a network of 19 MPAs covering approximately 137 square miles of state waters or about 13 percent of the region. The regulations went into effect on December 19, 2012.
Work has not begun on the final phase – San Francisco Bay.
ASA’s Board of Directors originally charged ASA staff to move forward with an action plan to get involved with the implementation of the California Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) in October 2006. Beginning in January 2007, ASA staff met with Coastside Fishing Club and United Anglers of Southern California and developed a “California Sportfishing Advocacy Plan,” which was shared with the Board at its meeting in March 2007. ASA and its partners have become “The Partnership for Sustainable Oceans (PSO).” The PSO was formed to represent recreational anglers and boaters to ensure they have an organized presence and unified voice in the MLPA process.
The PSO was heavily involved in the development of the MLPA proposals in the North Central and South Coast processes. Throughout this involvement, the PSO noted numerous deficiencies in the process to develop and ultimately approve MLPA plans in these regions.
On January 27, 2011, PSO members United Anglers of Southern California, Coastside Fishing Club and Bob Fletcher filed a lawsuit in the San Diego County Superior Court seeking to set aside the MLPA regulations for the North Central and South Coast study regions. The lawsuit cited a lack of statutory authority for the Fish and Game Commission to adopt the regulations, and, in the case of the South Coast regulations, numerous violations of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), in the commission's environmental review of the regulations.
On October 17, 2011, Judge Ronald Prager denied the petition. A subsequent appeal filed by Coastside in December, 2011, was denied by California's Fourth District Court of Appeal in April, 2013.
ASA and its partners in California will continue to explore all possible avenues to maximize recreational fishing access in California. One possibility is the requirement for a 5-year review of MLPA performance, and potential adjustments of regulations, for each region.