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A new era of ocean management for North Central California began this month when new marine protected areas became official on May 1.

After three long years of work by fishermen, environmentalists, divers and docents, the newest of California's underwater parks have finally made their big premiere.

These 21 new marine protected areas from Half Moon Bay to Point Arena encompass about 153 square miles of new protections and represent a shift in the way we care for our oceans. They're about being proactive instead of reactive and setting something aside while there's still something left to protect.

And they're about giving a gift to the future as one small bright spot among the many troubling legacies our generations are leaving behind.

These marine protected areas were designed by people who have opinions as diverse as California's ocean wildlife, so, of course, there were some bruises and bumps along the way. But as we put pen to paper and started drawing lines on a map, we quickly realized we did have one thing in common: We all care deeply about our marine life and are all personally and professionally invested in keeping it healthy.

It was with some trepidation that we embarked last week on a 21-hour tour to educate folks about these new protections. But, just like the map of the marine protected areas itself, this effort was also a collaborative one.

Together as fisherman and environmentalist, we drove to every harbor, bulletin board, post office and bait shop we could think of from San Mateo County to the North Coast. And we posted 90 large laminated maps and distributed 3,000 handouts in the name of getting the word out and keeping citations at a minimum.

It wasn't easy.

As a reminder of the thousands of hours we spent negotiating boundaries, weighing economics with ecology, and poring over charts, this trip too had its challenges and hiccups. Forgotten staple guns, white-knuckle traffic and uncharted territories of South San Francisco made the trip the perfect reminder of how we'd gotten here in the first place. Just as the act of creating the new marine protected areas was not a simple task, the outreach effort was — appropriately — no walk in the park either.

But the response was worth every minute of our time. Phrases such as "these are exactly what people have been waiting for" and "thanks for being proactive" were welcome ones.

By and large, it seemed that no matter which side of the table folks were on, we were met with a resounding "thank you" for our efforts to provide clear information to ocean users.

The new marine protected areas will protect some of the most special places along our coast, such as the Farallon Islands and Fitzgerald Marine Reserve. Some in the conservation camp think the final network is too permissive, while some fishermen still wish every one of their favorite fishing spots was left open. But these marine protected areas were the result of a process marked by sweat, effort and compromise.

And we've now come full circle on the North Central Coast process, where people are finally finding a way to welcome them to California.

Because at the end of the day, the ocean doesn't belong to any one of us. We are all responsible for its health, or for its demise, regardless of which side of the table we're on.

For a map of the full North Central Coast network of marine protected areas, please visit http://www.dfg.ca.gov/mlpa/northcentralhome.asp.

<i>Samantha Murray is a diver and conservationist with Ocean Conservancy in San Francisco. Josh Churchman is a commercial and recreational fisherman out of Bolinas. Both served with the Regional Stakeholder Group for the North Central Coast Region of the Marine Life Protection Act Initiative.