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Sonoma News
Thu 7/30 6 PM
A plan for ocean protection
By Lance Morgan

Here in Sonoma County, we live a little closer to nature than many of our Bay Area neighbors. We know what it means to rely on the land – and the sea – for food, jobs and our quality of life. And we also know how vital tourist dollars are to our region’s economy.

In our bucolic corner of the world, economic and environmental health go hand in hand. You can’t pursue one at the expense of the other, and you can’t bleed a resource dry without paying a high price in the long run. Ocean fish and wildlife off our coast are a renewable resource, but they’re not infinite. We have to watch over them just as we proudly steward the lands of our Valley. With care, and with an eye for our future sustainability. Marine protected areas are like money in the bank. You invest a little now, watch it grow, and eventually you can live off the dividends. Makes sense to me.

I have lived and worked as a marine biologist in Sonoma for more than 20 years. I completed my Ph.D. at Bodega Marine Lab, and spent hundreds of hours underwater. I have enjoyed my own freshly caught rockfish, crabs and abalone, swum, dove, whale-watched, kayaked and explored tidepools, spending many enjoyable hours on the coast. I love this place, but I stopped fishing for rockfish after witnessing the declines firsthand. When it came time to develop an ocean health plan for the north central coast, California did something smart – they brought together the folks who know our ocean best and care about it the most.

I was one of these people. Along with fishermen, divers, scientists and conservationists we all worked together, albeit with some tense moments. But we all shared a common interest – more fish in the sea benefits all of us.

And I do mean everyone. The coastline is probably California’s most recognized landmark. Our pocket beaches, rocky shore and kelp forests – our equivalent of coral reefs – draw visitors by the millions. And those people come expecting to see whales migrating, sea birds nesting, sea lions sunning. They may come to check out the amazing variety of tidepool life, like the 50 different species found by a marine biologist on a single intertidal rock at Coleman Beach, or they may come expecting to enjoy locally caught seafood.

A well-designed network of marine protected areas will ensure those experiences are available to our kids and grandkids. And they’ll ensure that tourist dollars keep coming into the north coast, and local fishermen have something to catch.

On Aug. 5, the state Fish and Game Commission is expected to adopt a compromise plan for ocean protection called the Integrated Preferred Alternative. It is based in the best available science, and draws from proposals that fishermen and conservationists created. It’s not exactly what either side had in mind at the outset, but it will protect key habitat areas like the Farallon Islands and Fisk Mill Cove while leaving almost 90 percent of the coast open for fishing.

This compromise plan is the result of nearly two years of public meetings and careful study. It was created to meet the needs of this diverse community, from hotel owners to abalone divers. And designed to minimize short-term economic impacts while delivering maximum conservation value.

Almost every square mile of ocean contains someone’s favorite fishing grounds. And no one wants to give up an area they like to fish. But if we don’t set aside parts of the coastline as safe havens for sea life and habitat, our kids – and my son – aren’t likely to experience the wonder of a vibrant Sonoma coast.

Scientists have already documented huge drops in fish size and abundance; economic data tells the same story. Each year, there are fewer vessels, fewer processors, and less revenue generated from fisheries off our coast. We have to turn this thing around, and the only way to do it is to start thinking about tomorrow today.

A science-based network of marine protected areas can help restore ocean ecosystems that are under pressure from climate change, fishing and a variety of other human impacts. It will improve the health of one of this region’s most valuable economic and environmental resources.

That strikes me as a very good investment indeed. I hope my friends and neighbors will join me in supporting the Integrated Preferred Alternative plan for our region’s ocean health.

And I hope the Fish and Game Commission will respect the wisdom of us local folks who helped design it.

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Lance Morgan, Ph.D., is a biologist and vice president for Science at the Marine Conservation Biology Institute. He is a 20-year resident of Sonoma Valley.

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