There is no question that the passage of the Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) has been the most controversial environmental issue California's angling community has ever faced. It signaled the state's shift from a shared philosophy of conserving California's natural resources to outright protectionism, with little regard to the interests of outdoor recreation, tourism and all of their economic benefits.
As the MLPA established the framework for Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), the state promised California anglers that areas designated as off-limits to commercial and recreational fishing may one day be open to fishing. In fact, they were very specific in their promises. Scientific assessments would be conducted every five years, and as fish populations were assessed as sustainably viable, the restrictions would be lifted.
Over time, the state established many MPAs along California's coastline, totaling over 850 square miles. As new MPAs were introduced, the angling community not only challenged the merits of closing some prime fishing spots, but the process by which they were selected. The locations and boundaries were not set by a presumably objective government agency, rather, a private organization who's funding was fueled by environmental groups, many of which shared an anti-fishing agenda.
As the plans came before the California Fish and Game Commission, the science or lack thereof was challenged, but to no avail. Even with considerable restrictions on the amount and manner of take already in place, commissioners simply assured anglers that timely assessments would be conducted and such drastic action would only lead to more plentiful fishing in the years to come.
That was then and not now. Deadlines to conduct these assessments have come and gone, and so apparently have assurances that the state can keep its word. This was evident at the April 13 California Fish and Game Commission, where some commissioners echoed the view of environmentalists that no promises were ever made. In fact, the president of commission stated that he didn't expect fishing to be restored during his lifetime.
In retrospect, this stunning pronouncement was not surprising. At the April meeting, the commission was functioning with only three commissioners and two vacancies after several longstanding commissioners resigned out of frustration. Defending hunters and anglers had become too tiresome. Ironically, it was the two recently appointed commissioners who challenged the assertion that promises were made, as if they had an institutional knowledge of the all the public hearings and stakeholder meetings.
The bottom line is the state did not recruit recreational anglers to serve on stakeholder groups to seek their advice on how best to deny them access to some of California's finest fishing, permanently. That would have been a none-starter. Rather, stakeholders were assured that environmental mitigation was required to protect the ocean's natural resources, and their participation aimed to balance the interests of responsible environmental stewardship and outdoor recreation.
The commission would be wise to abandon their current course of action of denying the truth, thereby enshrining the Marine Life Protection Act's legacy as the greatest bait and switch act ever. It will only further damage their relationship with those who were once their partners in conserving our state's natural resources. What's more, their actions have economic consequences. Recreational fishing contributes over $4.9 billion in economic activity each year, and its economic value will only decrease as the state continues to deny access to some of the nation's finest fishing.
Marko Mlikotin is the executive director of the California Sportfishing League, California's leading advocate for anglers and businesses dependent on outdoor recreation.