SANTA BARBARA, Calif. (AP) — State wildlife regulators voted Wednesday to create a zone of protected areas off the Southern California coast where fishing and other activities will be restricted or banned.

The Fish and Game Commission listened to hours of public comment before approving the marine protected area along a 250-mile arc of coastline from the Mexican border to Santa Barbara County.

“This is a landmark decision and a major step forward,” said Kaitilin Gaffney, a Pacific program director for Ocean Conservancy. “Do I wish it was a bigger step? Sure but it’s a huge step forward for ocean conservation.”

To comply with the state’s Marine Life Protection Act of 1999, California’s 1,100-mile coast was divided into five sections. Two protected areas were previously created in Northern and Central California. Southern California is the third area to undergo the process.

The establishment of such areas has been a particularly thorny issue in Southern California, where conservationists, fishermen and seaside business interests have collided.

The commission voted 3-2 in favor of the protected area. Supporters clapped when the vote was cast. Many had urged the panel to increase the size of the protected locations within the reserve.

The process appeared to have done little to quell opposition, even though the proposal has been in the works for two years and was aired at dozens of public hearings.

Fishing industry experts expressed concern about the survival of their industry. California Fisheries Coalition manager Vern Goehring and others predicted lawsuits.

“The public image or message that proponents are giving is this is a great thing protecting the ocean,” Goehring said. “But in reality, most people know if you regulate fishing — which is already regulated — it doesn’t do anything new about water quality, coastal development and other threats.”

The comments did not dissuade supporters on the panel including Richard Rogers, the commission vice president, who invited opponents to “bring it.” He promised to do everything he could to bring back the days when fish were plentiful in Southern California.

“It is not for us to be put off by legal action — we’re threatened by legal action almost on a daily basis,” he said.

Others on the commission worried about what such restrictions would do to the fishing industry, which already is struggling with an economic downturn. Commissioner Daniel Richards also said he did not think the agency would be capable of enforcement in the protected areas because of budget constraints.

“The reality is,” he said, “we’re completely and totally unable to truly monitor this.”

(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press.  All Rights Reserved.)


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