Calif. completes network of undersea sanctuaries

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — California's 848-square-mile marine reserve, the largest network of undersea sanctuaries in the continental United States, was officially completed Wednesday with the opening of the last link of protected areas off the state's far north coast.

California's patchwork of marine protected areas now stretches from the Oregon state line to the Mexican border and encompasses 16 percent of state waters. Nine percent is off-limits to fishing.

State Fish and Game Commissioner Michael Sutton said the 1999 Marine Life Protection Act directed the agency to establish the network of protected waters.

Modeled after strategies used on land, it sets up parks and refuges to conserve wildlife and help depleted fish stocks rebound.

"If you protect wildlife habitat and you don't kill too many, wildlife tends to do well," Sutton told The Los Angeles Times. "We've done that on land with the waterfowl population. Now, we've done it in the ocean for fish."

The network's final segment, a 137-square-mile protected zone, was part of a deal reached among Native American tribes, conservation groups and fishermen to preserve tribal traditions while protecting marine life.

California's ocean conservation efforts join those of other states and countries, where the efforts have paid off. The Phoenix Islands, Northern Mariana Island and Northwestern Hawaiian Islands all have established similar protected areas.

Not everyone was happy about the idea in California, most of all fishermen.

During public meetings throughout the state, fishermen protested and argued that closing fishing was not the right remedy and that pollution from coastal development and urban runoff were more to blame for declining fish stocks.

In the end, after myriad discussions, the reserves survived due to the science that showed the idea worked in other places.

Fish and Game Commission member Richard Rogers, a recreational fisherman, called the marine protected areas "the single most important thing I've done in life, other than marrying my wife and raising my five kids."