The implementers of the state’s controversial Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) told a suspicious audience at Eureka’s Wharfinger Building that influence can be exerted through participation in a uniquely inclusive public process.
That message, delivered at a June 22 workshop meeting, contradicts what’s been said locally in various political and governmental arenas. In Humboldt County, the MLPA process has been described as a steamroller that disregards not only public comment but scientific and financial realities.
The MLPA was passed in 1999. It calls for improvement and expansion of the state’s ineffective network of marine protected areas. A process that will lead to the designation of new marine reserves, conservation areas and parks will soon start in the North Coast region, which stretches from the Point Arena area to the Oregon border.
An audience of about 40 people involved in the local fishing industry heard about how it will be done fairly and with unmatched public involvement. They were civil but occasionally vocal, telling the presenters that the process being vouched for will result in loss of fishing rights.
Ken Wiseman, the executive director of the MLPA Initiative, a public/private partnership set up to carry out the law, didn’t deny that. But he said economic losses can be minimized.
A firm called Ecotrust is doing interviews with fishermen to identify their most productive waters, information that will be used to gauge economic effects. Wiseman said that in the North Central region which ends at Point Arena, the Ecotrust surveys resulted in “moving a line a mile or two in a protected area and instead of having 50% or 60% economic impact, we could have 5 or 10%.”
He added, “those are the kinds of things that can happen with this process, which I know a lot a lot of you aren’t thrilled about.”
Many see it as a closed-minded, if not malicious, attempt at self-glorification by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Resources Agency Secretary Mike Chrisman. The MLPA Initiative’s funding is also an issue, in various ways.
Critics say the state won’t be able to fund the rest of the process during its budget crisis, nor will it be able to pay for the adaptive management and monitoring that will measure the effectiveness of protected areas. A state budget committee has struck MLPA money from the general fund, one fisherman pointed out.
Melissa Miller-Henson, the initiative’s program manager, said the committee also called for replacing the funding with money from Proposition 84.
Private funding is substantial, which also concerns detractors since it includes money from a foundation which has direct ties to the pro-MLPA Monterey Bay Aquarium. But Miller-Henson said the initiative’s agreements with foundations aren’t outcome-based.
“What actually comes out at the end, they’re not interested in — they just want to know that in fact you involved the public, there was a transparent process,” she continued. “I understand that some people believe that these foundations have undue influence. We don’t see any of that and we don’t interact with them and our task force members don’t interact with them, either.”
“They’re calling up Arnold (Schwarznegger) and Arnold’s telling you what to do,” said fisherman and crabber Mike Zamboni, who was sitting in the front row.
“I don’t talk to Arnold and he doesn’t tell me what to do,” Miller-Henson responded.
The state’s Fish and Game Commission makes final decisions on Marine Protected Areas, based on recommendations. The preferences of a Regional Stakeholder group are reviewed by the state’s Department of Fish and Game and a Science Advisory Team.
A Blue Ribbon Task Force absorbs the input and drafts the recommendations. The Task Force has been portrayed as an unnecessary and overly influential bureaucratic layer, but Miller-Henson said it adds value by forging compromise when stakeholders disagree.
She paraphrased comments by Fish and Game Commission President Cindy Gustafson during a public meeting. “What the MLPA Initiative does, the Fish and Game Commission would never have the ability to do — the ability to incorporate and work from the ground up, with stakeholders, over a year to 14-month process,” she said. “So Cindy’s point was, the opportunity for public participation and public involvement in the decision-making for this process is unparalleled in any experience she’s ever had in government decision-making.”
Members of the Regional Stakeholder Group are nominated locally and picked by professional facilitators. Wiseman said they look for “good listeners” who can communicate well and aren’t excitable.
“You want a sheep, not a lion,” someone said.
“We want people who are diplomats,” Wiseman responded.
Later, he said that two local residents have already been put on a “statewide interest group” to “advise us on what they’re hearing in the community” and “ask the tough questions.” Wiseman identified one of them, Vivian Helliwell of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, and picked her to ask a final question.
Instead, Helliwell gave him some feedback. “We see this as, ‘How much are we gonna lose’ — so it would be really respectful if you didn’t act so darned cheerful about the process,” she said.
Wiseman told her of his experience as a water-deprived farmer and how he learned that effective participation could ease his losses. “We’re not here to hurt you, we’re here to help you,” he said, drawing an immediate upwelling.
“No, you’re not,” several people said at once.
“All I’m saying is that I’ve sat on your side of the aisle, I want to be respectful,” Wiseman said. “I am by nature a positive person, feeling that we can do this.”
But three days after the event, Helliwell wrote a letter informing Wiseman of her resignation from the statewide interest group. “I am not the right person to reach out to the community and encourage communication,” she wrote. “Fishermen see it as advocacy for the process, which I am not willing to do.”