Oceans apart

Sport and commercial fishermen seek removal of Department of Fish and Game commissioner

As vice president of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Michael Sutton advocated marine-conservation measures that have angered sport and commercial fishermen.

As vice president of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Michael Sutton advocated marine-conservation measures that have angered sport and commercial fishermen.

Photo By Department of fish and Game

For more information on the Central Coast Fisheries Conservation Coalition, go to www.righttofish.com.

A statewide coalition representing recreational fishermen has filed acomplaint with the California Fair Political Practices Commission seeking the removal of state Fish and Game Commissioner Michael Sutton because of an alleged conflict of interest.

The complaint by the San Luis Obispo-based Central Coast Fisheries Conservation Coalition hit the desk of the FPPC last month and claims that Sutton neglected to report he works for the Monterey Bay Aquarium on his Statement of Economic Interests form before accepting reappointment to the Fish and Game Commission by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in February.

The Political Reform Act of 1974 prohibits public officials from participating in decisions that might affect their own financial interests.

At issue for sport and commercial fishermen is the Marine Life Protection Act. Passed in 1999, the goal of the MLPA is to preserve and protect marine areas off the coast while minimizing the economic impact on individuals and communities that depend on sport and recreational fishing for their financial survival.

Hammering out the details of the legislation has parted the sea between the two sides, pitting commercial and recreational fishermen against conservation groups like Ocean Conservancy, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Monterey Bay Aquarium, where Sutton pulled down a $152,750 salary in 2007 as vice president of the Center for the Future of the Oceans.

“This is an egregious conflict of interest,” said Melvin de la Motte, president of the CCFCC. “Our organization has picked a mild and quiet way to approach this, and the honest and honorable thing for Sutton to do would be to pull himself out of any decisions relating to marine issues and regulations.”

But Monterey Bay Aquarium spokesman Ken Peterson discounts concerns that Sutton cannot fairly do his job as a Fish and Game commissioner.

“First and foremost, he doesn’t represent the Monterey Bay Aquarium when he’s working with the Fish and Game Commission,” says Peterson.

The aquarium’s own Web site says that it strives to “influence policy” in ocean-protection legislation. As a member of the California Fish and Game Commission, Sutton is one of five men and women who make regulatory decisions regarding marine legislation. The CCFCC’s complaint charges that Sutton is in plain violation of the Political Reform Act, which requires that officials perform their duties “in an impartial manner, free from bias caused by their own financial interests or the financial interests of persons who have supported them.”

The FPPC has begun an investigation, and de la Motte hopes they’re quick about it, for Sutton and his fellow commissioners are now gearing up to vote on the MLPA, one of the hottest issues in current state legislation.

After a year of impassioned deliberation, two alternate proposals for the act’s implementation—one drafted largely by fishermen, the other largely by conservation groups—hang in the balance. The Monterey Bay Aquarium supports the “Integrated Preferred Alternative,” which is opposed by many fishermen.

The CCFCC’s de la Motte believes there is no possible way that Sutton can vote fairly on the issue and wants the commissioner to excuse himself from the vote, scheduled for August.

Though the implementing the MLPA is a state process, it has received substantial funding from private groups. One of these—the Resources Legacy Fund Foundation, based in Sacramento—is also a major beneficiary to the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

In 2005, Coastside Fishing Club filed a lawsuit over the matter, arguing that monetary support from a private entity that seeks to protect marine areas would steer the proceedings in favor of conservation groups while alienating fishermen.

Coastside lost the lawsuit when the Superior Court in Crescent City determined that the entire process was safeguarded from abuse by the integrity of the Fish and Game Commission’s oversight. The CCFCC argues Sutton has severely compromised that integrity and must excuse himself from his duties.

Whether Sutton will vote in August remains in question. The FPPC’s enforcement division could remove him before the vote, an action that could potentially nullify past Fish and Game Commission decisions in which Sutton took part. In addition, Sutton faces a maximum fine of $5,000 for any violation that may have occurred. Of course, Sutton could also be cleared of any wrongdoing, and the case will come to nothing at all. A matter of weeks should tell.