Pending a Dec. 15 vote, marine protected areas along the Southern California may soon expand, drawing praise from conservationists and ire from local fishermen.

“There is strong reason to believe that resources of coastal Ventura County will benefit from the reserves we establish,” said Greg Helms, a program manager for the Ocean Conservancy in Santa Barbara. “There will be more larvae and fish getting born in Ventura County because of what we have done.”

The California Department of Fish and Game Commission (DFGC) will consider proposals from committees of fishermen, conservation advocates, researchers and divers that make up the Regional Stakeholders Group (RSG). The proposals aim to set up a fair and balanced network of marine protected areas (MPAs) from Point Conception to the Mexican border.

The current MPAs, which represent 7.7 percent of Southern California waters, with 6.9 percent as no-take reserves, weren’t set up with a network design and were created piecemeal and through initiatives of local government. They lack connectivity, conservation advocates claim, and they don’t do enough to protect the ocean’s natural and cultural resources, according to Helms.

Of the three proposals created by the RSG, Helms said that the DFGC is likely to side with the Integrated Preferred Alternative, since that was the plan it used to gauge the environmental impact. The plan draws aspects from each proposal, and it sets aside 16.5 percent of Southern California waters as MPAs, with 11.7 percent as no-take reserves.

The existing MPA regulations in Ventura County waters will likely remain unaffected by this proposal.

“These MPAs are designed to make the best balance between the short-term effects of having to move the fishing around and the long-term benefits the MPAs will create,” said Helms.

He explained that recent data has shown that by setting up a linked system of MPAs that share larvae of the same species, fish will eventually grow in size and number because there is no fishing pressure on the particular species. The larger fish will, in turn, be more productive than smaller ones and produce more offspring, which will generate a spillover into non-protected areas for fishing.

But some local commercial fishermen don’t agree. Since Gray Davis signed the Marine Life Protection Act in 1999, the rules and regulations of commercial fishing have been incredibly unclear, but heavily regulated, some say.

“Suddenly, MPAs came along; and all of a sudden, groups started forming because of the grant money that became available,” said Jerry Peters, a local commercial fisherman. “There are way too many people involved in this process.”

Peters has been fishing for 21 years and said that the heavy regulation of MPAs has reduced the local commercial fishing fleet by about 40 percent since he began.

In a recent economic analysis from Humboldt State University, commissioned by the California Department of Fish and Game, the number of licensed commercial fishermen is diminishing, and sales of commercial fishing licenses dropped 31 percent from 2000 to 2008, sinking from 26,049 to 18,052. Nationally, commercial fishermen account for $4 billion in revenue, and those in the industry fear that stricter regulation of MPAs will drastically reduce revenue.

The proponents for setting up a California network of MPAs, which include the Ventura County chapter of the Surfrider Foundation, have acknowledged that there will be short-term side effects in establishing new MPAs. But they have likened their efforts to the implementation of the California national parks system.

“There were effects on loggers and goatherds when we set up the national park system, and there was opposition to it,” said Helms. “One hundred years later, we see that it was a smart thing to do for the economy and environment . . . Like a national park, people can come, such as divers and stand-up paddle boarders, and see the fish and the diversity of animals in there. It’s the right thing to do.”   

The Ventura County Chapter of the Surfrider Foundation will have a short presentation and open discussion about the process for establishing a network of MPAs from Point Conception to the Mexican border at 7 p.m., Tuesday, Dec. 7, in the Topping Room of the E.P. Foster Library located at 651 E. Main St., Ventura.