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Tribal Science Challenges MLPA Initiative Assumptions

“With regard to local shoreline systems, where there is access, there are no ‘unfished’ systems,” said Mike Belchik, senior fisheries biologist from the Yurok Fisheries Program. “People have coexisted with these resources for many thousands of years; the appropriate conceptual organization foundation is that systems have been managed, and what is seen is the result of millennia of management.”

Tribal Science Challenges MLPA Initiative Assumptions

by Dan Bacher

State officials and proponents of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) Initiative have continually claimed in press releases and testimony before the Fish and Game Commission that the initiative is “science-based.”

However, the claims that that process is based on “science” ring hollow when one considers that the scientific perspective of tribal biologists was never included in the MLPA process since the initiative was privatized in 2004.

Mike Belchik, senior fisheries biologist from the Yurok Fisheries Program, dispelled the false notion that the MLPA is a “science-based” process when he gave a brief presentation challenging the assumptions of the MLPA “science" at the Fish and Game Commission meeting in Stockton on June 29.

After he and other representatives of North Coast Indian Tribes spoke, the Commission approved a “preferred alternative” that “failed to protect traditional tribal gathering rights,” according to a Yurok Tribe press release.

Belchik began his power point presentation, “Marine Life Protection Act: a Tribal Science Perspective,” with a key question: “How much will an ecosystem differ from an unfished ecosystem if one or more proposed activities are allowed?”

“Let’s stop right there; in land management the idea that ‘human-free’ is the natural status of an ecosystem has been discredited,” said Belchik.

“For example, intense study has taken place on Native American fire management and its relationship to landscape,” Belchik continued. “Redwood National Park has incorporated Native American fire management concepts to its management of the Bald Hills area to preserve prairie systems that provide habitat for key species such as Roosevelt elk and golden eagles.”

The false assumption of maximum harvest

He then challenged the MLPA Initiative's “Levels of Protection Assumption” that ”any extractive activity can occur at high intensity.“

He emphasized that this assumption:

• Assumes that recreational harvest will occur to the maximum extent permitted by law.

• Fails to take into account Yurok Tribe’s experience and ability to manage its natural resources.

He noted that the remoteness, difficult access and challenging weather of the North Coast limits the ability of fishermen and gatherers to harvest as he showed the Commissioners and audience photos of remote, inaccessible areas of the North Coast.

“Some things may change, some won’t,” Belchik stated. “Access is a huge issue in this area. Regulations may change, cliffs won’t."

Belchik, noting that “a model is only as good as its founding assumptions,” went on to say that the “flawed assumption of maximum harvest has caused the entire model to render faulty decisions regarding level of protection.”

In addition, issues of scale are not addressed by the MLPA. “Is the concern the level of use at access points, or is the entire section of coast line considered as a whole with regard to ecosystem function that is assessed?” he pointed out.

He also noted that issues of natural mortality are not addressed (i.e. what is it that really controls populations of target species) by the initiative.

The false assumption of 'unfished' shoreline ecosystems

Belchik then challenged the second major assumption of the MLPA: “For the purpose of comparison, an unfished system is a marine reserve that is successful in protecting that ecosystem from all effects of fishing and other extractive uses within the MPA.”

“With regard to local shoreline systems, where there is access, there are no ‘unfished’ systems,” Belchik countered. “People have coexisted with these resources for many thousands of years; the appropriate conceptual organization foundation is that systems have been managed, and what is seen is the result of millennia of management.”

He pointed out that there are many local examples of smaller unfished areas that are not currently in a marine reserve of any kind, but are simply difficult or impossible to access, or fishing is extremely limited due to weather, waves, and access, including the False Klamath and Lost Coast regions of the North Coast.

“Even though the entire area has been fished for millennia, parts of it remain inaccessible,” Belchik concluded.

A history of disregard for tribal science and gathering rights

MLPA and state officials have refused to consider scientific data provided by Indian Tribes in the creation of marine protected areas (MPAs) under the initiative, since it challenges the false assumptions that these MPAs are based on.

They refused to appoint any tribal scientists to the MLPA Science Advisory Team (SAT), in spite of the fact that the Yurok Tribe alone has a Fisheries Department with over 70 staff members during the peak fishing season, including many scientists.

MLPA and state officials also turned down a request by Yurok Tribe lawyers and scientists last August to make a presentation to the MLPA Science Advisory Team. Among other data, they were going to present data of test results from other marine reserves regarding mussels.

“The data would have shown that there was not a statistical difference in the diversity of species from the harvested and un-harvested areas,” wrote John Corbett, Yurok Tribe Senior Attorney, in a letter to the Science Advisory Team on January 12, 2011. “The presentation would have encompassed the work of Smith, J.R. Gong and RF Ambrose, 2008, ‘The Impacts of Human Visitation on Mussel Bed Communities along the California Coast: Are Regulatory Marine Reserves Effective in Protecting these Communities.’”

Finally, the MLPA Blue Ribbon Task Force didn't include any tribal representatives until 2010 when one was finally appointed to the panel.

During the historic direct action protest by members of over 50 Tribes and their allies in Fort Bragg on July 21, 2010, Frankie Joe Myers, Yurok Tribal member and Coastal Justice Coalition activist, exposed the failure to incorporate Tribal science that underlies the fake “science” of the MLPA process.

“The MLPA process completely disregards tribal gathering rights and only permits discussion of commercial and recreational harvest,” Myers said. “The whole process is inherently flawed by institutionalized racism. It doesn’t recognize Tribes as political entities, or Tribal biologists as legitimate scientists.”

Commission fails to protect tribal rights

Under "Option 1" of the preferred alternative for North Coast marine protected areas that the Fish and Game Commission accepted during the June 29 meeting, tribal members sixteen or older would have to show, on the request of a game warden, a state recreational fishing license in addition to a federally recognized Tribal ID - and be limited by state regulations.

Natural Resources Agency Secretary John Laird applauded the decision as "a major victory in the effort to establish Marine Protected Areas on the north coast of California."

"As we promised earlier this year we have devised a pathway to begin the process to let tribes on the North Coast to continue ancestral fishing practices in many of the areas most important to them," said Laird. "This is an extremely important decision to move the Marine Life Protection Act forward and to show regard for the sovereign tribal nations."

However, the Yurok Tribe said the decision actually "failed to protect traditional gathering rights."

“I cannot accept the part about the fishing license," said Yurok Tribal Chairman Thomas O’Rourke Sr. "The Fish and Game has taken an unjust and patronizing step. No one can separate these resources from our culture.”

For more information about the Yurok Tribe, go to:

MLPA Initiative Background:

The Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) is a law, signed by Governor Gray Davis in 1999, designed to create a network of marine protected areas off the California Coast. However, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2004 created the privately-funded MLPA "Initiative" to "implement" the law, effectively eviscerating the MLPA.

The "marine protected areas" created under the MLPA Initiative fail to protect the ocean from oil spills and drilling, water pollution, military testing, wave and wind energy projects, corporate aquaculture and all other uses of the ocean other than fishing and gathering.

The MLPA Blue Ribbon Task Forces that oversaw the implementation of "marine protected areas" included a big oil lobbyist, marina developer, real estate executive and other individuals with numerous conflicts of interest. Catherine Reheis Boyd, the president of the Western States Petroleum Association who is pushing for new oil drilling off the California coast, served as the chair of the MLPA Blue Ribbon Task Force for the South Coast.

The MLPA Initiative operated through a controversial private/public "partnership funded by the shadowy Resources Legacy Fund Foundation. The Schwarzenegger administration, under intense criticism by grassroots environmentalists, fishermen and Tribal members, authorized the implementation of marine protected areas under the initiative through a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the foundation and the California Department of Fish and Game (DFG).

Tribal members, fishermen, grassroots environmentalists, human rights advocates and civil liberties activists have slammed the MLPA Initiative for the violation of numerous state, federal and international laws. Critics charge that the initiative, privatized by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2004, has violated the Bagley-Keene Open Meetings Act, Brown Act, California Administrative Procedures Act, American Indian Religious Freedom Act and UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.