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GUEST OPINION: New era of coastal protection begins today

A common theme emerged during the years I spent leading wilderness trips and teaching in the School of Natural Resources at Mendocino High School. Students gained a deeper appreciation and knowledge of the natural world when they experienced it first-hand.

Whether it was a trip to the high mountain back country, studying salmon in the Big River estuary, learning about trends in the abundance of intertidal creatures or discovering a new species of fairy shrimp in the vernal pool in the Mendocino Headlands State Park, students often said these experiences in wild areas were among the most remarkable learning opportunities they had ever had.

It was especially rewarding to see these students get a deeper understanding of the plants, animals and fish that have defined the North Coast way of life for centuries, going back to the indigenous people who called the coast home. But the ocean and the fisheries that have sustained our economy are in trouble. Opportunities for fishing rockfish, for example, are still limited by overfishing in the 1990s. Abalone populations in some areas have recently dropped below sustainable levels.

Starting today, our community starts a new chapter to help turn that around. Beginning today, a new series of ocean protections take effect in the form of 19 marine protected areas designed to safeguard special ocean places, letting their ecosystems flourish and helping replenish surrounding areas. These protected areas will span the coast from the Oregon border down to Alder Creek, north of Point Arena.

Local fishermen, divers, tribes, business owners and conservationists put aside their differences and came together to design the marine protect areas. They worked collectively with a shared commitment to protect productive ocean areas and help ensure the sustainability of a range of human uses, from fishing and gathering to diving and kayaking.

At a time when political divisiveness rules Washington, their willingness to set aside differences to create this remarkable achievement speaks volumes about the North Coast culture of getting a job done. It took hard compromises by all involved, and two years of monthly meetings, to create an agreement that works best for all of us.

Some of the special features include continuation of traditional non-commercial tribal uses in new state marine conservation areas. And to address safety concerns due to our region's notorious weather, the new parks are sited at least 10 miles away from ports to provide fishing opportunity within close range of safe harbors.

These areas are designed to protect critical habitat for abalone, rockfish, urchins and other marine creatures. They also provide undisturbed nesting and breeding places for seabirds and preserve important marine mammal resting areas.

The marine protected areas complement fishery management measures. Together, they will give future generations the chance to experience an abundant ocean. Our children will be able to come to the coast to witness or use the rich life beneath the water.<NO1>, and one day, bring their children.<NO> Like my students, they will have a chance to gain an appreciation of the importance of biological diversity and conservation.

In time, the story of the staunch group of North Coasters who worked together to protect our fragile coastal environment may be forgotten. What's more important is that collaboration provided the coast and our community a gift of marine awareness and protection that will last.

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