The initiative to create a network of MPAs off the coast of the US state of California completed its first phase in April, with final designation of 29 MPAs along the state’s central coast (MPA News 8:10). There are more phases to come. The second one, addressing the north central coast, was launched this past February; the north coast and south coast phases will follow in coming years.

This multi-stage approach to implementing California’s Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) allows for distilling lessons learned along the way and applying them in ensuing phases. In fact, the first phase of the MLPA initiative has already fostered several official lessons-learned documents, available on the initiative website at

Two points raised in some of these documents address contentious issues in the first-phase planning process:

  1. How to balance differing views of marine ecologists and fisheries scientists on the usefulness of MPAs; and
  2. How large a role socioeconomic data should play in decision-making.

This month, MPA News discusses these issues with three people who were closely involved in the central coast planning process:

  • Phil Isenberg: Served as chair of a nine-member “Blue Ribbon Task Force” for the first phase, which was appointed by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to identify potential networks of MPAs along the central coast. Isenberg is a former mayor of the city of Sacramento and a former state legislator.
  • Meg Caldwell: Served as a member of the first-phase Task Force, and is also on the Task Force for the second phase. She is director of the Environmental and Natural Resources Law and Policy Program at Stanford University.
  • Steve Shimek: Served on the first phase’s Regional Stakeholder Group, a state-appointed board representing a diverse array of interests to advise the MLPA process. He is executive director of The Otter Project, an NGO dedicated to promoting recovery of the California sea otter.

MPA News: The MLPA calls for the use of the “best readily available science” to plan MPAs. One of the reports on lessons from the first phase said the process was challenged by basic disagreement between marine ecologists and fisheries scientists. Ecologists tend to view MPAs, and specifically no-take reserves, as a simple but effective ecosystem-management method. Some fisheries scientists view reserves as blunt tools that cause economic inefficiencies. Will future planning phases need to decide how to address this?

Isenberg: I see no obvious resolution to the problem of disputing points of view among scientists about how to protect and use the ocean. California spent about 150 years in the confusing but detailed micromanagement of fishing styles, licensing laws, and species protection. We have started the shift to ocean ecosystem management, but it is not surprising that it will take us decades to understand and fully implement that approach.

Caldwell: The assertion that we “need to decide” between approaches poses a false choice. The MLPA mandates the redesign of California’s system of marine protected areas to increase its coherence and effectiveness. Keep in mind, MLPA is just one of many laws in California that address ocean resource management; it was not intended to resolve every problem relating to the state’s marine resources. Rather, it was intended to work in tandem with the Marine Life Management Act, the Porter-Cologne Water Quality Control Act, the California Coastal Act, etc. to improve the condition of the state’s coastal waters and resources. Both ecosystem-based management and fisheries management have roles in moving the state toward sustainable fisheries and healthy marine and coastal ecosystems.

Shimek: In light of the ecology-oriented goals of the MLPA, marine ecologists are a better fit for it than fisheries scientists. Fisheries management is never explicitly mentioned in the MLPA. California’s Marine Life Management Act, a separate law, deals specifically with the sustainable harvest of living marine resources and the creation of fisheries management plans.

MPA News: What role did science play in the process as a whole?

Isenberg: From the start, I viewed the MLPA as a public policy process, not a pro forma ratification of the opinion of scientists. In my view, implementation of any contested public policy initiative requires the participants to work through the previous years of animosity in an effort to reach a sound conclusion. Yes, the MLPA law elevated the status of “science” in protection of the oceans and the creation of MPAs. And for some environmental supporters of the MLPA there was a belief that the Task Force should just turn over the decision-making to scientists. That never made sense to me, nor did I think it was required by the statute. At a minimum, the suggestion that scientists should tell us what to do did not convince the Task Force, although all of us believed that a more science-based approach was statutorily mandated, and logical.

MPA News: Along that line, there was some contention over how much information on socioeconomic impacts – as opposed to ecological impacts – should be incorporated in decision-making about networking design. What are your thoughts on this?

Isenberg: “Socioeconomic” is a surrogate for “how does this affect me.” Not much more than that, and not much less. It does not take a genius to figure out that if one or a few commercial fishermen are denied the opportunity to fish in a certain spot of ocean, for a certain type of fish, it may completely destroy their economic opportunity. Thus, for that fisherman, or small group of fishermen, the impact is severe. On the environmental side, the attempt to add every form of recreation, including enjoyment of the ocean and tourism into the socioeconomic equation, is interesting, if imprecise.

In a larger social sense, the positive benefit from protecting the ocean, and hopefully having an available supply of fish for consumption, is obvious. Can a dollar figure be placed on this general social good? I doubt it, but the advocates of ocean protection keep trying.

The balance between these economic points of view is what we wrestled with…and what will be debated for as long as ocean policy is discussed. It is significant that the MLPA statute did not require the State to adopt ocean protected areas “that have the least economic impact”.

Caldwell: I remain concerned that the socioeconomic data gathered and evaluated for the first phase ignored the potential benefits from MPAs. The consultants produced maximal estimates of potential negative economic impacts associated with fishing, and the Task Force was provided detailed and specific socioeconomic data on both commercial and recreational fishing by fishermen themselves. The MLPA clearly gives primacy to ecological goals (e.g., to protect the natural diversity and abundance of marine life; to sustain, conserve, and protect marine life populations and rebuild those that are depleted; and to protect marine natural heritage and unique marine life habitats) and many stakeholders believe that if we move toward achieving those goals, the socioeconomic impacts that accrue will be decidedly on the positive side of the ledger. For the MLPA North Central Coast Study Region, I will be interested in seeing parity between the nature of the data presented on consumptive and non-consumptive values as well as on potential short-term costs and long-term gains. To be useful in the MLPA process, these data should be focused on assisting with spatial decision-making (where MPAs should be placed), rather than revisiting the merit of whether we should have MPAs at all.

I also want to note that MLPA makes very little reference to socioeconomics and does not require the gathering of new, additional data. The act only requires use of readily available data. However, the Task Force believes the socioeconomic information is important, and we have asked staff to do what is feasible in the next study region to gather additional data, even more so than they did in the first phase. MLPA Initiative staffers are dedicating a great deal of energy to gathering information from the stakeholders themselves in the next region by going out early to meet with the public and talk about how to use socioeconomic data for the region.

Shimek: Families have been fishing the waters off Monterey for generations. Some of these families have been harvesting the “commons” for over 100 years and genuinely believe they are the best stewards. Implicit in the MLPA is the notion that the ocean belongs to all the people of California, including those who may only occasionally visit the beach. Values are changing: a tree has value left standing and a fish has value left swimming.

Worldwide, the creation of no-take marine reserves has often proven contentious, not only because of conflicting values, but also the balancing of short-term versus long-term goals. The central coast decision is balanced and fair by setting aside less than 10% of the central coast in no-take areas, at minimal short-term impact to fishermen, and with the hope of long-term fishery improvements.

For more information

Phil Isenberg, Isenberg/O’Haren Government Relations, 428 J St., Suite 440, Sacramento, CA 95814, USA. E-mail:

Meg Caldwell, Stanford Law School, 559 Nathan Abbott Way, Room 243, Stanford, CA 94305-8610, USA. E-mail:

Steve Shimek, The Otter Project, 3098 Stewart Court, Marina, CA 93933, USA. E-mail:

BOX: Background on MLPA and the 29 new MPAs

The Marine Life Protection Act was passed by the California Legislature in 1999. The first two attempts to implement it got bogged down in stakeholder opposition and budget shortfalls (MPA News 5:7). The process was revived in 2004 with funding from private foundations and the appointment of a special Blue Ribbon Task Force of experts to spearhead the planning.

The 29 newly designated MPAs will cover a total of 204 square miles (528 km2), or roughly 18% of California’s central-region waters. The MPAs will have fishing restrictions ranging from partial limits to an outright ban. No-take regulations will pertain to 85 square miles (220 km2) – roughly 7.5% of state waters in the region. California state waters extend three nautical miles from the shoreline. The MPAs are expected to take effect in July 2007.

For more background, go to the MLPA website at