by Dan Bacher

(October 1) In a landmark decision today, a California Superior Court issued a ruling confirming that two panels overseeing Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) Initiative are state agencies that must comply with the California Public Records Act.

Judge Patrick Marlette of the California Superior Court in Sacramento ruled that the Marine Life Protection Act Blue Ribbon Task Force (BRTF) and Master Plan Team (MPT) – also known as the Science Advisory Team- are state agencies and therefore compelled by California’s Public Records Act to share information with representatives of angling/conservation organizations working to protect recreational ocean access.

The ruling came in response to a lawsuit filed by Allen Matkins Leck Gamble Malloy & Natsis LLP, on behalf of Robert C. Fletcher, former president of the Sportfishing Association of California, a member organization in the Partnership for Sustainable Oceans (PSO), requesting the release of public records.

Marlette ruled that the agencies must release all of the documents requested by Fletcher by October 10, 2010.

“This is a very significant ruling to the many recreational angling groups and individuals across California who have invested so much time and energy in the MLPA process,” said Fletcher. “This ruling validates our long-held position that the groups implementing the MLPA and making decisions that result in closures of large areas of the Pacific Ocean to recreational activities cannot carry on as if they were not agencies of the state.”

“Like any other state agency, these groups are responsible to the public and must do their work in an open and transparent way that the public can learn about through laws like the Public Records Act,” added Fletcher.

“Now we’ll get to see information that has been previously hidden from us about key decisions made by the BRTF and MPT,” said Steven Fukuto, president of non-profit United Anglers of Southern California (UASC) and director of the Ocean Access Protection Fund (OAPF), a division of UASC formed to rally anglers and sportsmen across California in support of legal action.

“Our success in this lawsuit will allow us to shine a light on important decisions that have been made in the dark. We have every confidence this ruling will help us better understand how decisions have been made under the MLPA, and to examine the legal basis for those decisions on behalf of anglers and sportsmen across the state,” added Fukuto.

“This ruling is an important first step, but we’re going to need more financial assistance from anglers to support our efforts to flight this flawed process in the courts,” Fukuto said. For additional information, visit http://www.keepamericafishing.org or http://www.oceanaccessprotectionfund.org.

David Gurney, the independent journalist who was arrested for filming a “work session” of the MLPA Initiatives’ Regional Stakeholders Group in Fort Bragg in April, praised the decision.

“This decision is important because Ken Wiseman, the executive director of the MLPA Initiative and others in the MLPAI have consistently stated that the MLPAI is not a state agency, but an advisory body, and therefore the only had to abide by Bagley-Keene and other state laws as a matter of ‘good faith.'”

Indian Tribes, fishing groups, grassroots environmentalists and seaweed harvesters have criticized the MLPA for the violation of numerous state, federal and international laws. These include the Bagley-Keene Act, the California Public Records Act, the California Fair Political Practices Act, the American Indian Religious Freedom Act and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People.

While MLPA Initiative advocates constantly claim that the process is “open, transparent and inclusive,” critics say the initiative is anything but. Over 300 people including members of 50 Indian Nations, commercial fishermen, recreational anglers, immigrant seafood workers and community activists felt so left out of the process that they were forced to peacefully take over an MLPA Blue Ribbon Task Force meeting in Fort Bragg on July 21 to protest the violation of sovereign tribal rights and greenwashing that has occurred under the initiative.

Fortunately, the tribal, fishing, environmental, business and other stakeholders on the North Coast on August 31 adopted one single proposal to submit to the BRTF, in contrast to multiple proposals submitted during the Central Coast, North Central Coast and South Coast regional processes.

Marlette’s decision is a victory not only for recreational anglers, but for all Californians who support openness, transparency and democratic process in government. The MLPA Initiative, privately funded by the Resources Legacy Fund Foundation, must now comply with the law.

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