A number of proposals to create marine reserves off the North Coast have gone into the blender, as a 31-member group formed under the state Marine Life Protection Act Initiative meets for the first time on Monday.

A group of local stakeholders and conservationists say their proposals are meant to soften the economic and social blow anticipated with the shutting down or restricting fishing and gathering in some areas along the sparsely populated coast. But while several proposals are roughly similar, few of them appear to meet the guidelines set up by the 1999 act.

That means that whatever comes out of the mix over the next year is likely to be more restrictive than what local interests have proposed. The initiative's staff are currently reviewing the submissions, which are expected to be made public on Feb. 16.

Humboldt Bay Harbor, Recreation and Conservation District Conservation Director Adam Wagschal said that each type of reserve proposed in various coastal habitats is added up to meet the state's requirements. Wagschal coordinated the proposal submitted by the North Coast Local Interest MPA Working Group -- composed of local agencies, commercial and sport fishing and other stakeholders from Humboldt, Del Norte and Mendocino counties.

”Everything contributes a certain amount toward meeting the guidelines,” Wagschal said.

According to those guidelines, each marine reserve should stretch along at least 3 to 6 miles of coast, but preferably be 6 to 12.5 miles long. They should also be within 31 to 62 miles of each other. That's based on the idea that larvae from fish and other organisms can travel between reserves.

The guidelines have been challenged by local fisheries biologists who say the North Coast's habitats and currents are different than the rest of the state's, and should be treated differently. They also cite existing closures and fishing regulations that currently limit fishing in both state and federal waters in the region, much of which is inaccessible due to weather for large portions of the year.

The North Coast is the fourth of five regions in which the MLPA has planned marine protected areas -- or MPAs -- which range from restricting all fishing and harvesting of shellfish and seaweed to allowing some commercial fishing and gathering. The reserves are in state waters, which go out 3 miles along California's 1,100-mile coastline.

The first set of reserves proposed by the North Coast interest group calls for a 21-square-mile reserve from the Del Norte County line to just south of the mouth of the Smith River. Moving south, another marine reserve is proposed for the area north of Reading Rock, and butts up against a marine conservation area in shallower waters to the east. Commercial crab fishing would be allowed in the conservation area. Much of the reserve area around the rock is already off limits to rockfish fishing, which can't be done in water deeper than 120 feet.

The next reserve to the south is a special marine recreational management area pitched for the southwestern portion of Humboldt Bay. This encompasses much of the bay's important eel grass habitat and estuaries flowing into South Bay, but hunting and clamming would be allowed.

A 13.2-square-mile marine conservation area is proposed for the area around the mouth of the Eel River, where crabbing would still be allowed but salmon trolling in shallow water could be restricted. An existing rockfish conservation area at Punta Gorda would effectively be expanded to a marine reserve of 19.4 square miles on either side of the mouth of the Mattole River, under the proposal.

The North Coast group opted not to propose any MPAs around Shelter Cove, Wagschal said, out of concern that the small fishing community could suffer disproportionately from any further restriction.

Tim Klassen, who runs the charter operation Reel Steel Sportfishing out of Eureka, said that the proposal for the most part avoids major losses to sport fishing along the coast. Klassen said he believes it fulfills the spirit of the MLPA while leaving most valuable fishing areas open. But it's no cause for celebration, Klassen said, as the process to form MPAs is just getting started.

”Are we excited about it?” Klassen said. “No.”

A series of meetings of the 31-member regional stakeholder group will be held over the next several months to hammer out proposals -- or “arrays” -- to be sent to the state's Blue Ribbon Task Force. It will develop a set of proposals in March, narrow them down in May, and select one to three arrays in September. A Science Advisory Team will review the proposals along the way.

”There's a whole lot of opportunity between February and September for the public to be actively involved in providing input,” said initiative Program Manager Melissa Miller-Henson.

That group will make final recommendations to the Blue Ribbon Task Force, which will then select a preferred proposal to send to the California Fish and Game Commission, which is expected to receive the proposal in December.

Environmental groups Humboldt Baykeeper and the Ocean Conservancy have proposed a similar set of reserves for the North Coast, with some exceptions. They have proposed a conservation area off False Cape just north of the Klamath River mouth, and an addition to the one proposed for the west side of Reading Rock. The North Coast group's reserve off Punta Gorda is a conservation area in the environmental group's proposal, and is shifted slightly south.

The MPAs proposed by the North Coast group would allow traditional tribal uses, hunting and gathering for cultural, subsistence and ceremonial purposes. Yurok Tribe Acting Self-Governance Officer Megan Rocha said that the tribe saw a lot of support in the community, but questioned whether the state would be satisfied with the exceptions. If the language isn't accepted, Rocha said, the tribe won't support any MPA in Yurok ancestral territory.

”There's still quite a bit of work to be done to make sure that tribal uses along the coast are not affected in any way,” she said.

The Humboldt Baykeeper and Ocean Conservancy proposals calls for only conservation areas, the least restrictive type of MPA. That is a difference in approach taken by the North Coast group and the environmental groups in trying to protect American Indian traditional fishing and gathering uses along the coast.

Ocean Conservancy spokeswoman Jennifer Savage said there is not a clear method for allowing tribal uses laid out in the MLPA. She said the difference between the two groups' proposals doesn't represent a difference in intent, but rather in approach.

Savage said the conservation groups pitched a separate proposal to include other areas in the mix in an effort to meet state guidelines, not because there was a major disagreement on what areas should be MPA's.

”These are just conversation starters,” Savage said. “Nobody is looking at it like an absolute.”

There are also several other proposals for MPAs along the North Coast, some of which pitch smaller and less restrictive zones and others which look to create larger but less restrictive areas.

The end product is also likely to change substantially as different organizations, including major environmental organizations, weigh in. The Natural Resources Defense Council and the Mendocino Chapter of the Sierra Club have proposed a series of MPAs which they say fully protect 8 percent of state waters and partially protect 9 percent of state waters between the Oregon border and Punta Gorda. Their proposal is focused on several areas to the south of Punta Gorda.

The two groups' maps of the reserves have been forwarded to the initiative, but are not yet available for viewing on an MLPA clearinghouse Web site.

Even with the North Coast working group's relatively light-touch proposal, commercial fishermen say they've made major concessions. The Pelican Bay reserve area is in significant Dungeness crabbing grounds, for example, and crabbing is the most valuable fishery the North Coast fleet has left. Humboldt Fisherman's Marketing Association President Aaron Newman said that the local groups have worked well together in drafting the proposals -- but that the association can't sign off on them, even though it helped create the North Coast working group draft.

”We're going to lose,” Newman said. “Why would anyone endorse a loss?”

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IF YOU GO:

What: MLPA Regional Stakeholders Group meeting

Where: Red Lion Inn, 1929 Fourth St., Eureka

When: Feb. 8 at 9:30 a.m. and Feb. 9 at 8:30 a.m.

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John Driscoll covers natural resources/industry. He can be reached at 441-0504 or jdriscoll@times-standard.com.