By BILL BEEBE WON Staff Writer
The recent approval by the state Fish and Game Commission that established a network of no fishing zones within a 175-mile area around the five Channel Islands may be reconsidered, the commission's president indicates.
Michael Flores, who chairs the five-member commission, in an exclusive interview with WON said, "there is always room for improvement, "I think that the jury is still out on some other things on how we can tweek it to make it better than what it is," Flores noted in a brief telephonic interview with a WON reporter.
He did not offer what "better" might mean in making proposed changes, if any, he may have in mind.
The 2-1 "majority" vote by the commission that established the series of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) at its Oct. 23 meeting in Santa Barbara was strongly criticized by both recreational and commercial fishermen as being based on "flawed science" and "political persuasion." The MPA concept at the islands drew strong support from environmental and animal rights groups, as well as the Department of Fish and Game. It was viewed as an alleged tool to assist in rejuvenation of a multitude of fisheries around the islands.
There have been allegations that two commission members -- Flores and James Kellogg -- were given orders by Gov. Gray Davis to the effect that if they couldn't vote for the proposed MPAs not to bother attending the meeting.
Both strongly deny receiving orders "from anyone" not to attend the meeting.
The issue was determined by two members, Robert Hattoy and Sam Schuchat, who have strong ties to environmental groups. Hattoy was a former regional director of the Sierra Club and more recently served as President Clinton's Commission on HIV/AIDS. Schuchat is the director of the Coastal Conservancy based in Oakland. The lone negative vote on the MPAs issue was by Commissioner Mike Chrisman, a fifth year holdover member appointed by former Gov. Pete Wilson. His term will expire next year.
In explaining why he missed one of the most important meetings in the commission's history, Flores said he was ill with a case of the flu. "Gov. Davis would never do that," Flores stated regarding the rumor that the governor suggested he not show at the meeting if he could not support the MPA project.
"We are an independent body to make decisions based on our knowledge and what we think are pertinent and relative facts. And I think we've done this so far."
He said that he tried making the last day of the two-day commission meeting in Crescent City, which followed the Channel Islands meeting, but was too ill to stay more than a couple of hours.
Kellogg, an international representative of the United Association of Journeymen and Apprentices (plumbers) Union, said that during two commission meetings prior to the Oct. 23 debacle he had given notice that he would not be at that Channel Islands meeting. He said he had to attend an important union conference in Florida.
As a result, he said that both he and Flores "got beat up" by the media for not attending that meeting.
"People don't understand that the guy who signs my paycheck told me to be somewhere else," Kellogg fumed at the thought he avoided the meeting as an alleged political favor to the governor.
"The public record will show that I voted against moving the meeting. If it was held in December, as it was supposed to be, I think all the commissioners would have been there."
But that didn't happen. At the commission's Dec. 13 meeting in Sacramento, both Hattoy and Schuchat were absent.
Kellogg said that he talked with deputy attorney general Bill Cunningham, the commission's legal representative, about participating in a telephonic meeting of the commission's MPA hearing during his stay in Florida. But he said Cunningham told him that it was against commission policy to hold such meetings.
"So I never pursued it any further," Kellogg remarked. Flores said he, too, would have requested to participate in a telephonic hearing of the matter, "but no one knows in advance that they are going to be too sick to attend. By then it was too late," he stated.
State law prohibits such meetings without a 10-day advance commission agenda/public notice that also allows the public to participate in such meetings, said Robert Treanor, commission secretary.
When asked if he had been asked by anyone not to attend the Channel Islands commission meeting, Kellogg bristled.
"That would never work with me," he said. "I was not in favor, or voting on it without a full commission. I've always felt that way."
The contradictory decision that established those MPAs has led a unified group speaking for hundreds of commercial fishermen and the state's 2.4 million licensed anglers to file an amended petition for writ of mandate on their behalf, naming the commission and Department of Fish and Game as defendants.
The petition alleges 38 violations of state law were committed by the DFG and commission in reaching the MPA no-fishing closures. Included in that ammended petition, filed by veteran San Francisco attorney Ilson New, are allegations that the petitioners were denied the opinions of both Flores and Kellogg that might have resulted in an adverse ruling to the MPAs, New said.
"California made the right decision for the Channel Islands," said Kate Wing of the Natural Resources Defense Council. "It's time to roll up our sleeves and make the marine reserves work.
"We're disappointed by the lawsuit, but we think the state had an incredibly thorough, open process that will hold up in court." There is no evidence to indicate how Flores would have voted, although in the past he expressed support for angling activities. Kellogg, on the other hand, was outspoken regarding his feelings on the subject.
When asked if he would have cast a no vote on the MPAs at the Oct. 23 meeting, he replied tartly: "Nobody knows how I would have voted. That's my own decision. But I can tell you this, I didn't agree with what they (commission) did."
As a longtime representative of unionized working men and women most of his life, he said that he didn't want to see anybody put out of jobs, whether they be fishermen or anyone else.
"I think it was necessary to preserve the (Channel Islands) fishery as well. But I also think there are other ways of looking at it, rather than making it a total sanctuary at one shot, Kellor said."
Kellogg also questioned the accuracy of studies presented by biologists representing both the fishing groups and conservationist organizations as "slanting" evidence any way that you want them to say it.
"I don't know who's telling the truth," he said in questioning the intent of their testimony. "At some point, we've got to make our own minds up what's really happening out there.
"What I'm saying is, you gotta take a little bite of that apple at a time. Now we've created one of the biggest sanctuaries in the world overnight. And I think that's over reacting."
A veteran DFG official familiar with the legalities involved in "tweeking" management plans such as the Channel Islands MPAs, says the commission has every right to do so.
"The commission made a decision. Technically, at a future meeting they could decide to open up that ruling and change it," the official, who asked that his name not be revealed, noted.
"The laws are not cast in concrete. The closest thing to it is the Constitution.
The regulations that the commission adopts are the most flexible of all of them. They can be changed practically every year."