A Great Victory for California's Coast and Ocean

At the end of last week, California, once again, did something no other state in the country had done before – our California Fish and Game Commission voted 3 to 0 to complete a science-based statewide network of marine reserves. This solid action is the happy culmination of nearly 12 years of NRDC advocacy to protect these unique nearshore ocean ecosystems and help create a safety net for our fisheries.

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When the Commission voted Wednesday to approve the north coast’s community-designed marine protected areas plan, the last link in a system of over 100 undersea “hope spots” stretching from Mexico to Oregon, it was a big day for California’s coast and ocean and also for us here at NRDC – especially my colleague Karen Garrison, co-director of NRDC’s ocean program. 

Fifteen years ago, when Karen grasped the problems associated with overfishing and its impact on marine life, she identified marine reserves as a powerful tool to revitalize Pacific fisheries. Working with legislative leaders who wanted to bring California’s ocean management into the 21st Century, she researched what would work and helped win broad legislative support for the resulting bill, only to see it die in the Governor’s office during the Wilson Administration.  Following the election of Governor Gray Davis, Karen and I teamed up to try again.  We worked with then Assemblyman Kevin Shelley (D, SF) and succeeded in getting AB 993, the Marine Life Protection Act (MPLA) passed and signed into law in 1999, setting in motion the process for creating underwater safe havens for ocean creatures all along the California coast.  Now, under the leadership of Governor Brown and his Natural Resources Secretary John Laird along with Department of Fish and Game Director Chuck Bonham, this program has come to life. 

Since working to pass the MLPA, Karen has been there every step along the way, pushing the Department of Fish and Game to get it right.  Working with local communities, fishermen and women and a full range of stakeholders to understand their perspectives and fashion solutions.  Karen’s innate sense of calm and reason, coupled with a steely determination, has powered her to labor tirelessly for the full realization of the MLPA, with the help of countless local groups and individuals. During the past 12 years, she has worked with everyone affected by this model legislation to protect unique ocean habitats, including -- but not limited to -- fishermen, scientists, seaweed harvesters, divers, the Navy, the timber industry, DFG and Native American sovereign nations.

It’s been a long haul, but well worth it. As Priscilla Hunter of the InterTribal Sinkyone Wilderness Council, a consortium of 10 federally recognized north coast tribes recently said, “The start of this process was very difficult and contentious ... but we have ended in a very positive place with a strong framework for future tribal consultation on important conservation and environmental issues.”

And as Karen also put it well, “by safeguarding our iconic ocean places — and the rich web of life they support — these jewels of the coast will help revive depleted fish populations and draw people to the coast to enjoy our remarkable marine wildlife.”

Thank you, Karen, and everyone who participated in this extraordinary effort.

About the Authors

Annie Notthoff

Director, California Advocacy, San Francisco and Sacramento

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