Amid charges of conflicts of interest and secret, illegal meetings, the California Fish and Game Commission on February 2 adopted a marine-protection proposal fraught with controversy, though it acknowledged tribal gathering rights on the ocean for the first time since Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger privatized the initiative’s process in 2004.
Crafted by recreational anglers, commercial fishermen, environmentalists and business owners, the local, so-called unified proposal of the Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) was approved during a joint hearing between the commission and the MLPA Blue Ribbon Task Force for the North Coast in Sacramento. The MLPA would create marine protected areas in 13 percent of North Coast waters.
The Yurok and other North Coast Tribes did not endorse the proposal, but accepted it on condition that the state formally acknowledges the sovereign rights of tribes to gather along the coast as they have done for thousands of years.
“There is no evidence that tribes have had a negative impact upon the ecosystem," said Thomas O'Rourke, Chair of the Yurok Tribal Council. "They have been part of the ecosystem since time immemorial. Science needs to recognize people as part of the ecosystem. If you don’t include people, the proposal will fail. Our rights are not negotiable.”
This was just one phase in the process of developing ways to protect marine life of California’s north coast. The proposal will be discussed further at Fish and Game’s April meeting.
"Nothing is final until it's final," O'Rourke said after the meeting. "We are as comfortable as we can be in this stage of the process."
Commenting on a pending lawsuit by the Partnership for Sustainable Oceans (PSO) against the MLPA initiative, O’Rourke said, "If the state doesn't listen to us and tries to impose regulations on the Tribes, the fishermen's lawsuit is possibly one of many they will have to deal with."
Tribal members indicated they’d consider civil disobedience if tribal rights weren’t protected.
“When grandma wants mussels, it will take a lot more than Wild Justice to prevent me from doing this,” quipped Sammy Gensaw Jr., Yurok Tribal Member.
The Fish and Game Commission also agreed to work closely with the MLPA Initiative and the Department of Fish and Game to develop a revised MLPA network proposal for the North Coast Study Region that allows for “traditional, non-commercial subsistence, ceremonial, cultural and stewardship uses by Tribal people,” it said in a resolution adopted at the meeting.
Telling members of the California Fish and Game Commission that “the North Coast Unified Plan is unprecedented and deserves to be supported,” First District Assembly member Wesley Chesbro (D-Arcata) testified in support of the local unified proposal.
“The North Coast Regional Stakeholders Group accomplished what no other region has been able to do—generate a single Unified Array proposal,” Chesbro said. “The Unified Array is an unprecedented accomplishment and provides a wonderful opportunity for this commission to also act in unity. On behalf of the overwhelming consensus on the North Coast, I urge you to support our community’s request.”
Nevertheless, MLPA critics slammed the process for alleged conflicts of interest, including the domination of the MLPA Blue Ribbon Task Force by oil industry, real estate, marina development and other corporate interests.
The MLPA process was privatized in 2004 when Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger directed the Resources Legacy Fund Foundation, a private corporation that North Coast environmental leader John Stephens-Lewallen described as a "money laundering operation for corporations," to fund the controversial process through a Memorandum of Understanding with the Department of Fish and Game.
Since then, critics charge, the MLPA Initiative has violated numerous state, federal and international laws, including the Bagley-Keene Open Meetings Act, the California Public Records Act, the State Administrative Procedure Act, the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, and the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
Supporting this notion, the Partnership for Sustainable Oceans (PSO) presented a 25-page document supporting allegations that MLPA Initiative officials had met privately, when all meetings were required to be open to the public.
The PSO, a coalition of national and regional fishing organizations including the Coastside Fishing Club and United Anglers of Southern California, filed suit in San Diego Superior Court in late January, seeking to overturn South Coast and North Central Coast MLPA closures, alleging violations of the State Administrative Procedure Act.
Public meetings of the Blue Ribbon Task Force “have been an elaborately staged Kabuki performance, choreographed and rehearsed down to the last detail, even to the crafting of motions, in scheduled private meetings held before the so-called public meetings," said PSO spokesman George Osborn, charging that the process has been less open and transparent than advertised.
“The [task force’s] behavior taints the regulations that are the end product of its work, and these regulations must be reversed,” Osborn said at the hearing. “The PSO respectfully requests that the Commission begin the process to undo these wrongs committed against California’s recreational anglers and all Californians, see that the MLPA is implemented properly, and reverse actions that unnecessarily close areas to fishing.”
Instead, he said, the PSO and other groups want to “work with Governor Brown and direct California’s meager resources to solve real problems that harm the ocean we love.”
Osborn submitted copies of MLPA emails and correspondence that he said prove that the Blue Ribbon Task Force met secretly in April 2007, November and December 2008, and February and October 2009.
The documents included correspondence by MLPA executive director Ken Wiseman, former Fish and Game commissioner Don Benninghoven, MLPA Initiative program manager Melissa Miller-Henson and task force member Meg Caldwell, among others.
There was also an e-mail from Fort Bragg City Council member Jere Melo on November 5, 2009, regarding his resignation from the MLPA Statewide Interest Group for its failure to obey state laws.
"I cannot continue on a body that advertises its functions as 'public' and then provides very little or no public notice of its meetings," said Melo. "There is a real ethics question for a person who holds a public office."