In the past year, milestones were reached in two high-profile processes to create representative systems of marine protected areas. In the Australian state of Victoria and in the Channel Islands of the US state of California, government officials approved plans for networks of new MPAs, concluding lengthy and contentious planning efforts in both cases. Both processes offer lessons to practitioners and stakeholders elsewhere who face similar challenges in planning MPA networks.

In a two-part series, MPA News distills lessons learned from each process by examining the obstacles encountered and how participants might have improved the processes in retrospect. Part one of the series, focusing on the Channel Islands, appears in this issue.

In the February 2003 issue, the conclusion of MPA News’s two-part series will examine lessons learned from the process to designate an MPA network in Victoria.

Background on Channel Islands planning process

The unique mix of marine life surrounding the Channel Islands archipelago exists due to the convergence there of warm- and cold-water currents, flowing up and down the Pacific coast of North America. In 1980, the US federal government designated the 4,292-km2 Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary (CINMS) to protect these waters, principally from the threat of increased oil drilling in the area. In the late 1990s, responding to calls from local stakeholders to protect dwindling fish stocks, the sanctuary and the California Department of Fish and Game instituted a joint process to consider no-take marine reserves in the sanctuary. (The sanctuary straddles state and federal waters.)

The multistakeholder Sanctuary Advisory Council for CINMS, which provides advice to the sanctuary’s management, was assigned oversight of the reserve-planning process in 1999. To examine the issue of reserves in greater detail, the council formed a marine reserves working group (MRWG) of managers, fishermen, conservationists, and other stakeholders. The MRWG was responsible for recommending a plan to the council, which would then evaluate and forward the plan to the manager of the sanctuary. Final implementation would come upon approval from state and federal resource-management agencies (MPA News 2:10).

Notably, the MRWG established that all of its decisions on reserves would be made through a consensus-based process – i.e., all members must agree. The working group set a number of goals for the process, among them:

  • Protection of representative and unique habitats;
  • Achievement of sustainable fisheries in the Channel Islands; and
  • Minimization of short-term economic losses to all resource users.

To inform its decisionmaking, the MRWG created two advisory panels, on science and socioeconomics. The science panel, directed by the working group to propose size and location criteria for reserves, recommended that at least 30% of each habitat type in the sanctuary be set aside to conserve biodiversity and sustain fisheries. The socioeconomic panel analyzed the potential impacts on fishing and other activities in the case of such closures.

In early 2001, the MRWG failed to achieve full consensus by deadline on a network plan, hindered primarily by dissent from recreational fishing representatives. Stuck without an agreed-upon option from stakeholders, the Sanctuary Advisory Council advised the CINMS manager and California Department of Fish and Game to develop a plan themselves, based on the findings of the working group. The result was a preferred option that, if implemented, would set aside 25% of the sanctuary as no-take through a series of reserves, with 10% of the closures in state waters and 15% in federal waters. In October 2002, a state commission ratified that plan, effectively designating 10% of the sanctuary as off-limits to fishing, to take effect January 1, 2003 (MPA News 4:5). The process to consider designation of the remaining federal portion of the network, which will require approval from federal fisheries managers, is now getting started.

Lessons learned

MPA News interviewed eight individuals who participated directly in the MRWG process. Ranging across government, NGOs, and the commercial and recreational fishing sectors, these participants described a variety of challenges faced by practitioners and stakeholders in the planning effort. Through these discussions, MPA News gathered the following lessons:

1. Maximizing conservation while minimizing short-term economic impacts is difficult

Although each of the surveyed participants concluded that the MRWG’s goal of protecting biodiversity had likely been met, there was disagreement over whether the working group’s socioeconomic goals had achieved similar success.

“The process failed to minimize the short-term economic impacts on fishermen,” said Harry Liquornik, president of a local port association of commercial fishermen. According to a report of reserve-network impacts by the socioeconomic advisory panel, fishermen could see the ex-vessel value of their catches decline by 8%-19% depending on gear type, assuming they were unable to recoup the losses elsewhere. Liquornik said it was a major challenge for planners to find areas with good habitat to set aside that would not disproportionately affect any particular sector of the industry.

“Don’t get me wrong – I fully support reserves,” said Liquornik. “The goals that we developed, although pretty lofty, were excellent.” However, he said, the MRWG erred in not setting criteria for measuring achievement of the socioeconomic goals. Like the science advisory panel’s 30% target for closures, perhaps the working group should have set a maximum target for economic impacts and worked down from there, he said. He added that no plans for effort reduction were agreed upon, raising the likelihood of environmental impacts due to effort displacement from the new reserves.

Another MRWG member, Greg Helms of The Ocean Conservancy, an NGO, agreed that allocating economic impacts was a continual challenge. “The traditional struggle between commercial and recreational fishermen was a strong undercurrent in the process,” he said. “This added to the struggle between conservation considerations and economic ones.”

Helms says the process was outstanding – and fortunate – in its ability to incorporate high-quality information, gathered by teams of scientists, in both ecological and socioeconomic decisionmaking. By applying natural and social features to a cell grid of the planning area, planners had a sophisticated and organized way to discuss and conceptualize various reserve alternatives. “There was a clear depiction of costs and benefits among alternatives,” he said.

Linda Krop, executive director of the Environmental Defense Center, another NGO, said the working group satisfactorily met its goals. “Given the internal conflicts, it was virtually impossible to meet all objectives for both the short and long term,” she said. “However, the [state-ratified plan] made great progress in meeting the agreed-upon goals and objectives. To some degree, the scientific input was ignored to elevate consumptive socioeconomic interests, but the end result was still an improvement over pre-existing regulations.”

2. Full consensus is not always achievable

The MRWG process was built on a foundation of consensus-based decisionmaking. When the sanctuary and state officials moved forward to prepare a plan despite the MRWG’s failure to reach full agreement, some participants felt that they and the process had been wronged. There was particular outrage from the recreational fishing community, whose MRWG representatives had favored smaller closures.

Sean Hastings of CINMS, who staffed the working group, said that although striving for full consensus was admirable, “It should not impede the necessity to fulfill the mandate of the law.” He said that if the process were hypothetically to be done again, he would suggest not to repeat the full-consensus goal, and instead focus on generating the best advice possible.

Helms of The Ocean Conservancy agreed. “Consensus is not an achievable goal for stakeholder processes dealing with issues of this magnitude,” he said. “A first reason is that it is unfair to expect stakeholder representatives to both represent their constituency and honor a negotiated compromise at the same time. Also, the goal of consensus poses the problem of giving each participant a veto power over any potential outcome. Thus stakeholder processes should be viewed as an outstanding method of identifying common ground, identifying and processing data, defining the contours of conflict, and potentially creating novel alternatives for their resolution.

“Participants should have been given more specific parameters about what to provide the ultimate decisionmakers and more clarity that a decision was going to be made using the information generated by the process,” said Helms. “Perhaps the goals and objectives should have been provided to the MRWG so that its task would have been one of finding ‘how’, and not ‘whether’ or ‘how much’ to agree upon.”

John Ugoretz, senior biologist with the California Department of Fish and Game, pointed out that although the Channel Islands process did not ultimately achieve full consensus on a reserve network, MRWG members were able to agree on many other things, including the fundamental goals for what they intended to do. “All the working group members agreed that there was a problem in the area noted by declining [fish] populations,” said Ugoretz. “They also agreed that there are multiple causes for this problem and that marine reserves are one way to address it.” He said that these basic agreements were all used by state and federal officials in developing the final proposal. Therefore, to suggest that consensus-based decisionmaking should play no role in MPA planning would be wrong, he said. “Highly diverse groups of representatives can reach agreements,” he said.

Steve Roberson, an attorney and recreational fisherman, was part of a group of anglers who first recommended creation of reserves in CINMS in 1996. A MRWG member, he says that although final agreement on a reserve plan was not achieved, the goal itself likely brought people to the negotiating table. “Maybe people wouldn’t have participated at all if there hadn’t been the unanimity requirement,” he said.

3. Remain committed to the goals of the process

The MRWG planning process lasted two years, with dozens of meetings. Many of these consisted of long discussions on the precise wording of goals so that everyone would be in agreement before moving ahead. Without the commitment of MRWG members to the process, the group would not have reached the agreements that it did on goals and objectives. “The endless wordsmithing was driving me crazy, but I realized later that it was probably necessary for the later negotiations,” said Roberson.

Tom Raftican of the United Anglers of Southern California said, however, that the process could have benefited from a time extension at the end, allowing the process one more chance to reach unanimity on a plan. “If consensus is the goal that you start with, then it needs to be the goal that you finish with, too,” he said. With no extension of the deadline for a decision, he said, the result of the process was fundamentally unfair. He added that in the final days of the process, the MRWG was close to a solution that could have found agreement from all sides, but the deadline put an end to it.

Krop of the Environmental Defense Center said commitment to the process carried the responsibility of keeping constituents – often diverse and decentralized – informed. She suggested that MRWG representatives from the fishing community did not always do a sufficient job of educating their constituents of the issues at stake. “Rather than present objective information and try to develop options based thereon, the fishing community continued to take an ‘all or nothing’ approach,” she said. “Fishers and harbor business people would show up at meeting after meeting, afraid that they would lose their jobs and livelihood. They did not have the benefit of the information that had been generated through the process.” She recommended that for such planning boards to be effective, they should include stakeholders who are truly interested in achieving full- or near-consensus, and who are not there simply to exercise their veto power.

4. Setting percentage-based targets can alter a planning process

When the MRWG asked the science advisory panel to provide size and location criteria for potential reserves, the panel took the initiative of delivering its advice with a percentage-based target: that at least 30%, and as much as 50%, of each sanctuary habitat be set aside as no-take. The figures were reported in the media, and fishing interests voiced strong objection to the idea of closing up to half of their fishing grounds. MRWG discussions, which had formerly focused on how to meet the group’s general goals of balancing ecology and economics, now veered toward how the group could set aside 30% of the sanctuary.

Ugoretz of the California Department of Fish and Game says the 30% target was never viewed as a firm goal by the federal and state officials, including himself, who drew up the eventual network plan. “The agencies, when developing the proposed project, took into account the science advisory panel’s advice, along with other science and goals such as limiting socioeconomic impacts,” he said. “We also considered the fact that MPAs would not be the only type of management used [in the region], and that many ongoing processes are reducing fishing effort. Thus we determined that representing habitats at a level of 20% or more was adequate.”

Although the sanctuary, as host of the planning process, worked hard to separate politics from the fact-finding and science processes, some participants felt the science panel had overstepped its bounds in picking and publicizing a percentage-based target. Bruce Steele, a commercial urchin diver, accused the science panel of being political. “If the scientists are going to take a political stance, then they should be prepared to go the whole way and participate in all the community meetings, too,” he said. He said one assumption that underlay the panel’s target – that all fisheries management outside the sanctuary was ineffective – was flawed. “Fishermen went into this process hoping it would produce a better interface between science and community stakeholders but, with some exceptions, that didn’t transpire,” he said.

Liquornik, representing the local port association of commercial fishermen, said the MRWG discussions in the end consisted of seeing how far the fishermen could go in setting aside fishing grounds. “The fishing community should have stopped and said, ‘This is as far as we can go, percentage-wise, with the consensus of the industry,'” he said. Absent such a limit, the fishing representatives on the MRWG were left to consider each proposal on an ad hoc basis, weakening their negotiating position.

5. External factors can affect planning

As noted above by Ugoretz, the Channel Islands process did not operate in a vacuum. Other fisheries management actions along the US Pacific coast have placed increasingly strict limits on fishing effort in recent years, including a ruling in 2002 by the Pacific Fisheries Management Council (PFMC) that fishing for rockfish would be off-limits in waters deeper than 120 feet (MPA News 4:3). The PFMC ruling, which came after the MRWG discussions but prior to state ratification of the Channel Islands network plan, has made the concept of closing shallow rockfish habitat in the sanctuary – particularly around the islands nearest to mainland harbors – that much more difficult for the recreational fishing sector.

“The PFMC essentially closed down the rockfish fishery beyond 120 feet,” said Raftican of United Anglers. “There are an awful lot of moving parameters out there in fisheries management. It’s extremely difficult in planning to take a static look at the situation.”

Said Roberson, “The recreational fishing people had too many closures hitting them from other processes to allow them much flexibility. With the Channel Islands reserves and the rockfish closures, I think some of the [recreational fishing guides] will go out of business.”

6. Clarification of roles may be necessary

When a government agency is both a host and participant in a planning process, as the sanctuary was, there can be confusion among stakeholders as to where the agency’s allegiance lies: to the process or to its own interests. “On a general scale, there was and still is confusion on the sanctuary’s interest and involvement in the process,” said Hastings of CINMS. “The public needs to recognize that agencies must operate within the scope of the law and their mandate. Certain constituencies appeared not to fully understand the sanctuary’s role in protecting resources and providing a very open public process to better inform the sanctuary and other resource management agencies.”

Liquornik said the decision by the sanctuary and state officials (on advice from the Sanctuary Advisory Council) to develop a plan themselves without full consensus from the MRWG was indicative of where their interests lay. “We learned that agencies are stakeholders, too,” he said.

Outcomes of the process

Roberson says that although many in the recreational fishing community view the Channel Islands planning process as having been a negative one, it had one positive result: the community is now more organized and galvanized to take action on issues. “Hopefully that will be a positive thing environmentally,” said Roberson. He said recreational fishermen might now be able to effect greater change, such as by working for better water quality and other issues impacting their target species.

Others in the fishing sector are not satisfied with the Channel Islands process. A coalition of several recreational and commercial fishing associations filed a lawsuit on December 3 to stop implementation of the Channel Islands reserve network and reopen the process by which state officials approved it. The lawsuit claims the state failed to consider the effects of the closures on adjacent areas or respond to public comments, among a range of other violations of state law.

In the meantime, the state of California is moving ahead with a process under the state’s Marine Life Protection Act to design a network of MPAs throughout state waters (MPA News 3:9).

Helms of The Ocean Conservancy summarized the lessons he had taken from the Channel Islands. “The process was challenged by valid questions from many stakeholder sectors about whether a negotiated stakeholder process is a viable and proper means to resolve resource conflicts,” he said. “Essentially, the willingness to pursue common ground and compromise challenged the process, and I believe these challenges will persist as MPA planning efforts move forward. ‘End run’ opportunities will continue to exist; that is, methods to secure superior outcomes outside the process will be available to each constituency and these have the potential to undermine stakeholder processes.

“The management of the ocean is becoming more contentious and the estimates of its status more bleak,” he said. “How will future planning processes be affected by this context?”

For more information:

Sean Hastings, Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary, 113 Harbor Way, Suite 150, Santa Barbara, CA 93109, USA. Tel: +1 805 966 7107; E-mail:; Web:

Greg Helms, Santa Barbara Field Office, The Ocean Conservancy, 120 West Mission Street, Santa Barbara, CA 93101, USA. Tel +1 805 687 2322; E-mail:

Linda Krop, Environmental Defense Center, 906 Garden Street, Santa Barbara, CA 93101, USA. Tel: +1 805 963 1622; E-mail:

Harry Liquornik, Commercial Fishermen of Santa Barbara, 6 Harbor Way, Box 155, Santa Barbara, CA 93109, USA. Tel: +1 805 963 0239; E-mail:

Tom Raftican, United Anglers of Southern California, 5948 Warner Avenue, Huntington Beach, CA 92649, USA. Tel: +1 714 840 0227; E-mail:; Web:

Steve Roberson, Grays, Roberson and Bourasa (law firm), 1200 Hillcrest Drive, Suite 100, Thousand Oaks, CA 91320, USA. Tel: +1 805 498 7119; E-mail:

Bruce Steele, 1570 W. Highway 246, Buellton, CA 93427, USA. Tel: +1 805 686 9312.

John Ugoretz, California Department of Fish and Game, 1933 Cliff Drive, Suite 9, Santa Barbara, CA 93109, USA. Tel: +1 805 560 6758; E-mail: