California exempts tribes from fishing restriction

By Sudhin Thanawala
San Francisco (AP) July 2011

State wildlife regulators have given tentative approval to a plan to restrict fishing off parts of Northern California that they say allows Native Americans to continue their centuries-old fishing practices.

But a tribal representative says the plan falls short of what the tribes were seeking.

In a 4-1 vote, the state Fish and Game Commission selected its preferred alternative for marine protection areas from the Oregon border south to Point Arena in Mendocino County. The plan exempts tribes from restrictions on harvesting marine life in certain areas on the North Coast.

“I think we’ve crafted a way to make it a win-win,” said Ken Wiseman, executive director of the Marine Life Protection Act initiative.

But some tribal officials disagree.

“It’s a small step,” said Alicia McQuillen with the Yurok Tribe’s attorney’s office. “We’re still looking for something that’s a lot more wide ranging.”

The tribes would still be restricted from gathering marine life in some areas. They would also need to have a state fishing license and tribal identification and present evidence that they have historically gathered marine life in areas that fall under the exemption.

Two tribal groups, including the Northern California Tribal Chairmen’s Association, had sought access to additional areas along the North Coast that have been slated for protection.

They also wanted to manage those areas themselves through an agreement with the state, McQuillen said.

“We still hold that the tribes have the ability to manage their own citizens, and the state doesn’t really need to,” she said.

The 1999 Marine Life Protection Act called on the state to redesign the system of marine protected areas along its entire 1,100-mile coastline. It found that existing protections had been created piecemeal and without scientific evidence to support them.

The state’s coastline was divided into regions that would be re-evaluated for protection. Regulations for the Central Coast and North Central Coast are already in effect, greatly expanding the area where fishing is prohibited or otherwise restricted.

While opposition in other parts of the state has mostly been from commercial fishermen concerned about their livelihoods, tribes were the effort’s main critics on the North Coast. At stake for them, they said, were thousands of years of harvesting marine life sustainably for food or decoration for ceremonial regalia.

The plan for the North Coast approved will now go through a detailed environmental review over the next several months before returning to the commission for another vote.

“We will always be willing to have more discussion (with the tribes), but this is a compromise that most people didn’t think was possible,” said John Laird, secretary of the state’s Natural Resources Agency. “I think this moves the process ahead.”