FISH & GAME COMMISSIONER INVESTIGATED

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FISH & GAME COMMISSIONER INVESTIGATED -- ONS-matthews column -- 18jun09

Fish and Game Commissioner Sutton investigated for conflict of interest over marine reserves

By JIM MATTHEWS www.OutdoorNewsService.com

Michael Sutton, a member of the California Fish and Game Commission, is being investigated by the Fair Political Practices Commission in response to a complaint filed against Sutton by the Central Coast Fisheries Conservation Coalition, a sportfishing and commercial fishing interest group.

The group has charged that Sutton violated conflict of interest provisions in the Political Reform Act of 1974 when he voted on Marine Life Protection Act issues as a member of the Commission.

The MLPA is legislation that was passed in 1999 and required the establishment of a series of marine reserves off the California coastline. The south Central Coast region was the first to have its marine reserves established, and sportfishing and commercial interests felt that most of the viable fishing areas were included in reserves completely closed to sport and commercial fishing. A battle is raging in Southern California right now about what areas will be protected and what areas will be left open.

Melvin de la Motte, CCFCC president, said Sutton's votes on MLPA issues would have a material financial effect on his own income and on his employer and source of income, the Monterey Bay Aquarium Foundation, which is a violation of law. De la Motte also said Sutton violated Fish and Game Commission policy by failing to disclose his employment with the Aquarium. De La Motte said Sutton's votes also opened him up to legal action.

The FPPC has 45 days to investigate Sutton from May 19, the date it accepted the complaint.

"The right thing for him to do would be resign," said de la Motte.

Adrianna Shea, external affairs and special advisor to the Commissioners, said this was something the Commission has ever had to deal with in the past, but that Sutton would continue in his role as Commissioner, including voting on issues.

Shea also said that Sutton did not vote on Central Coast MLPA regulations because those rules were adopted before he was a Commissioner.

De la Motte disputed that, saying Sutton voted against amending the existing marine life protected areas on the Central Coast because the Center for the Future of the Oceans, which he runs, played a 'key role' in passing MLPA legislation and pushing the vast protected area closures on the Central Coast.

Shea said the 45-day period of Sutton's investigation and decision will end before Sutton is scheduled to vote in August on the next round of MLPA reserves, the north Central Coast region. If Sutton is removed from the Commission, Shea did not know if the Commission would have to revisit issues where his vote was the determining voice, and expected the FPPC would give them guidance on that issue.

The filing and threat of a lawsuit point out how contentious the whole MLPA process has become, and most people in the sportfishing community feel that vast closed areas are going to be rammed through in spite of the public process that is showing the majority of the public is opposed to closures of all the best fishing regions.

There is a solution to this whole process that would make sense and give fishermen, the scientific community, and environmental groups solid data on which to push their causes.

Since the process is already in its second decade, why not look at the data coming from the Central Coast closures, which have been in place for two years, and see if it is working. While most scientists say it will be 10 years before they can make determinations about the closures successes, that only adds another eight years to the process. If, as sportfishermen suggest, the data doesn't support the closures, we can rethink the rest of the coastal areas and take other conservation routes.

A process that moves slow and bases decision based on science for our coast would make far more sense and rushing to judgment on closures now that may or may not have the desired impacts.

There's also the issue of funding. With state and federal governments that are broke, it doesn't make sense to heap more expenses on the system in enforcement and study costs. Let's enforce and study the Central Coast now and see where we should go with the rest of the state's coastal waters.
 

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