June, 2012: I remember waking up at 3 a.m. The day had ended with hurried finishing touches to press releases, congratulatory phone calls, the obligatory toasting. But it wasn’t until all the noise fell away that I realized what we’d done: made parts of the ocean safer for the creatures that live there. I would be able to walk out to the beach, gaze at the sea and know my fingerprints were among the Californians who have successfully increased ocean protection.

All this was the result of a law passed by the state legislature in 1999. Politicians on both sides had agreed that California needed to better safeguard its fisheries for the benefit of the fishermen reliant on having fish to catch and an economy overwhelmingly dependent on a healthy coast. Thirteen years later, the final piece of the puzzle had been adopted.

The first effort at implementing the Marine Life Protection Act failed, it is widely agreed, because local people were left out of the planning. In 2002, the Department of Fish & Game tried again, this time with better public outreach, but the state ran out of funds. Two years later, funding from multiple organizations created the Marine Life Protection Act Initiative, a public-private partnership that allowed for the creation of regional stakeholder groups, a scientific advisory team and a Blue Ribbon Task Force to design, evaluate and assist in the redesign of California’s marine protected areas (MPAs).

The process was not without its glitches. Many fishermen resented the burden of new regulations. Different ocean users disagreed on where the new MPAs should go, how much ocean should be protected, what should and should not be allowed within them. Stakeholder groups tended to divide into subsets of those with commercial interests and those with nonprofit ones.

That’s where the science came in. To work as a network, MPAs have to be large enough, diverse enough and close together enough to connect adult and larval fish along the coast. The science team also analyzed proposals to ensure the network contained enough “no take” zones, where female fish could grow large and old, producing more viable offspring and boosting the potential for increasing fish populations outside of the MPAs.

Keeping the general public interested in all this wasn’t easy. The acronyms, the wonky policy-speak, the meetings after meetings after meetings – the very component that allowed for greater public input also left many people burnt out. I spent far more hours in meeting rooms under fluorescent lights than I did in the ocean I so loved. A lot of people felt the same.

But to truly have public input and stakeholder power takes a lot of time. On the North Coast we had the added realization that the MLPA hadn’t been written with tribal interests in mind, an omission that slowed things down substantially as the state redefined and improved its relationship to California’s indigenous peoples.

When the stakeholder meetings began, my conservation colleagues and I endured scorn, mistrust and accusations of wanting to sell out state waters to special interests. Some of the accusers remain misguided, but for the most part – the important part – over time, trust and respect was earned. The thing we had in common, caring about our local community, was evident in every discussion. Ultimately, both sides came together with a single proposal for the North Coast, a feat achieved in no other region of the state.

From stakeholder approval to task force acceptance to commission adoption was a long road fraught with disagreements, cultural clashes and conspiracy theories. In the end, compromise and clear heads prevailed. The real winners in all this, of course, are those of us who depend upon the ocean as a provider and the creatures who call it h

Image ( sample )