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Big Win for California Oceans Boosted by Donated Flights

Point Dume's coastline is now a State Marine Reserve under the December 15, 2010 ruling.  Photo: Kip Evan Photography with aerial support by LightHawk

Last week, after years of stakeholder meetings, negotiations, heated discussions and scientific study, the members of California’s Fish and Game Commission voted to set aside small swaths of the ocean between Point Conception, near Santa Barbara, and the Mexico border as sanctuaries protected from human interference. Once implemented, these protected areas will join an existing network that stretches north to Mendocino. If sea otters could applaud this historic victory for ocean conservation, they would.

Portions of the ocean off La Jolla north of San Diego are now protected to help fish stocks rebound and marine life flourish. Photo: Meagan Wylie/San Diego Coastkeeper aerial support by LightHawk

LightHawk volunteer pilot and advisory council member, Mike Sutton (a person many suspect of secretly having gills because of his lifelong dedication to marine conservation) is one of five Fish & Game Commissioners appointed by the Governor of California. His recent vote in favor of a system of protected Marine sanctuaries will benefit both the ocean and humans, by ultimately allowing sea life to recover and thrive in those reserves. Although controversial, the decision to limit fishing, recreation and research within the sanctuary areas along portions of California’s coastline ultimately promises to increase overall fish stocks and lead to a healthier marine ecosystem. Ample evidence from other marine sanctuaries worldwide demonstrates that Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) can boost fish populations, with a beneficial spillover effect to areas outside the sanctuaries.

Leveling with the Land
Before the state of California embarked on this process, less than 1% of California’s state and federal waters were protected; a tiny percentage considering about 10% of California’s land has some level of protection, and 80% of Californa's residents live within 31 miles of the shoreline. California holds jurisdiction over waters from the shore to three nautical miles offshore. On December 15th, as the Commissioners settled in for a final round of public hearings and deliberations at a Santa Barbara hotel, a woman who had donated many flights to the issue eagerly waited across town for news of the Commission’s decision.

LightHawk's owned Cessna 207 has flown countless survey flight missions to help quantify and map current usage patterns along the coast. This unique aircraft was donated by the family of the late Greg Gund. Kevin Steele Photography

Jo Duffy is one of many LightHawk volunteer pilots who volunteered their aircraft and time for the Marine Protected Areas effort. Shouting out the window, “clear prop!” before taxiing to takeoff, these pilots used their flying as an antidote to the controversy surrounding of the process to establish MPAs along California’s coastline and bring the marine environment into clear perspective.

A Considerable Contribution
LightHawk volunteer pilots Jo Duffy (Santa Barbara, CA), Ralph Britton (Palo Alto, CA), Michael Baum (Palo Alto, CA), Randy Henry (Northridge, CA), Mike Jesch (Anaheim, CA), David Kunkel (Meeker, CO), John-Michael Lee (Van Nuys, CA), Lew Nash (Ashland, OR), Kevin Roache (San Diego, CA), Bill Rush (Boulder Creek, CA), Chuck Schroll (Tucson, AZ), Mark Shelley (Monterey, CA), Skip Slyfield (Park City, UT), Ed Steinman (Ann Arbor, MI), Mike Sutton (Monterey, CA), Brian Williams (Boone, NC), Brent Witters (Guadalupe, CA), and Will Worthington (Carefree, AZ) collectively donated more than 350 hours of flight time over the past five years to share the unique view of the California coastline from a thousand feet above the whitecaps. These pilots delivered their pre-flight safety briefings to a diverse collection of passengers and stakeholders over the years: fishermen reluctant to lose their favorite fishing sites, reporters looking for a new angle and stunning images to tell the story, community members seeing their favorite dive or surf spots with new eyes, and researchers methodically mapping boat traffic to find the best places to situate the Marine Protected Areas for the least impact on commerce and recreation.

A tanker ship recorded during a survey flight. Photo: Santa Monica Baykeeper with aerial support by LightHawk

It may seem strange to meet at the airport to understand the ocean, but flying above the coast is one of the best ways to see the whole picture of unique marine environments. Flights differentiate the proposed sanctuaries. From sea level, all ocean looks essentially the same. However, from an airplane, blue water yields its secrets to show kelp beds that harbor rich marine life, rocky reefs that provide safe haven for juvenile fish, and the special confluences where freshwater mixes with salt and marine life booms. From the air, adjacent land uses and impacts such as irrigation runoff are also stunningly obvious.

Finding compromise in the decision on where to situate the MPAs between Santa Barbara and the Mexico border has not been easy. While some say the restrictions will harm already diminished commercial and recreational fishing industries, others contend that a small sacrifice now is necessary to increase fish stocks for future generations. Sutton points out that 85% of California’s waters will still remain open to commercial and recreational activities after the MPAs are established. And like any true compromise, the final decision reflected give and take on all sides.

Santa Monica Baykeeper staff (middle) prepare for a survey flight while volunteer pilots Luke Irwin (left) and Chuck Schroll (right) perform a pre-flight safety check. Photo: Santa Monica Baykeeper

In early October, LightHawk pilots, board, staff and partners met for the annual Fly-In in San Diego to see and hear how the aerial perspective was being used to help implement MPAs sensibly. Tom Ford, a former East Coast fisherman and Executive Director of Santa Monica Baykeeper (now with the Santa Monica Bay Restoration Commission), told how LightHawk flights helped build support for the MPAs. “Many fishermen flew with us [during our surveys] and because of this conversation, changed. Now they’re helping put back the resource they need for their extraction to occur,” Ford explained. “Because of LightHawk, we found that common ground from the sky.”