ENCINITAS — More than a year ago, the California Fish and Game Commission voted to expand a network of marine protected areas throughout Southern California after nearly a decade of contentious debate.
The new regulations, which went into effect at the beginning of the year, are designed to replenish marine life in overfished areas. Environmental groups and wardens from the California Fish and Game Department are working to inform the public and enforce the new marine protected areas.
Wardens were already stretched thin before the new regulations due to budget cuts, and now they have even more areas to patrol.
The new regulations nearly doubled the size of marine protected areas in Southern California. For instance, Swami’s added nearly three miles of protection, making it San Diego’s largest marine protected area. The marine protected area in La Jolla expanded by two city blocks, creating seven square miles of protection in an area that’s heavily fished.
But there has not been an increase in wardens to police expanded waters. The number of wardens in Southern California has hovered around 72 for the last five years, according to Paul Hamdorf, assistant chief of enforcement for the California Fish and Game Department in Southern California.
Among coastal states, California has the fewest number of wardens per capita.
“We could use more,” Hamdorf said. “It’s an additional workload. There probably won’t be more wardens in the near future given current government trends.”
He added, “We’re doing the best we can with what we have. I think we’re effective. Compliance rates have been high so far.”
Since the new regulations took effect, there has been one major violation in Southern California. A man was caught poaching lobster in a marine protected area in Laguna Beach less than a month ago.
According to Hamdorf, instead of fines, several dozen warnings have been issued to commercial and recreational fishermen who were found in violation of the regulations in San Diego. Stricter enforcement is likely in several months when fishermen become more familiar with the regulations and fishing season kicks into gear.
Catalina Offshore owner David Rudie says that the potential lack of wardens was raised as an issue during the local public-planning process that created the marine protected areas several years ago.
“Many were worried about not having enough wardens for enforcement,” Rudie said.
Going forward, will there be enough wardens to deter most poachers?
“It’s a good question that remains to be seen,” Rudie said.
Although the new marine protected areas have been in effect for more than a month, many fishermen are still bitter about the regulations. Wayne Campbell, a North County lobster fisherman, noted that he expects his income to drop by 30 percent primarily because the Swami’s marine protected area was expanded.
“It was already a sound fishery,” Campbell said. “The new laws weren’t necessary for that area.”
He’s also believes that wardens were already in short supply.
“It’s going to be expensive to patrol all these news areas, and I rarely saw wardens in the past,” Campbell said. “Now it could be even worse.”
Wardens primarily use observation tactics and tips from a hotline to catch poachers, according to Andrew Hughan, spokesman for the California Fish and Game Department.
“The wardens live in the communities where they patrol and know all the hot spots for fishing, legal and illegal,” Hughan said. “They also talk to fishermen and residents all day and they receive many reports about illegal fishing or poaching. One thing that is misunderstood is that the biggest conservationists are the fishermen themselves. Many of them make their living from the sea so they are quick to report poaching, both to protect the resources and their livelihoods.”
According to Hughan, wardens believe educating local fishermen is the best way to enforce marine protected areas.
With a potential shortage of wardens, environmental organizations have stepped up public outreach. San Diego Surfrider has led the charge in North County by holding numerous public forums.
“We started educating people prior to the new regulations being in place,” said Stefanie Sekich-Quinn, policy manager for San Diego Surfrider. “The forums have drawn a really diverse mix of fishermen, politicians and people who really aren’t involved with fishing. It’s been helpful for a lot of people.”
As well as public forums, Sekich-Quinn says San Diego Surfrider has set up tables at Swami’s to inform the public about changes to the marine protected area.
“I think that the fishermen will benefit from the marine protected areas over time — studies show that,” she said. “And I really don’t think enforcement will be an issue at Swami’s. Fishermen have their reputation on the line and wouldn’t risk it on poaching.”
In addition to the La Jolla and Swami’s marine protected areas, other notable changes in North County include the San Dieguito Lagoon and the Batiquitos Lagoon. Restrictions vary from area to area.
Visit dfg.ca.gov for a full list of marine protected areas and more information about what’s allowed within each border.