WOODS HOLE, MASS. — Benjamin Cowie-Haskell describes a Sherwood Forest that Robin of Loxley could never have imagined.
"It's a really incredible place," says Mr. Haskell, an official with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Oceans Service. "In some areas, it's just coral as far as the eye can see." With some corals boasting mushroom-like caps thought to be up to 400 years old, "it's like an old-growth forest out there."
Sherwood Forest springs from the floor of the Tortugas Ecological Reserve - 151 square nautical miles of crystalline water brush-stroked with the brilliant hues of tropical fish and lush coral, just off the continental shelf. Formed July 1 near the Dry Tortugas National Park some 80 miles west of Key West, Fla., the reserve's two sections combine to form the nation's largest
permanent marine reserve, officials say.
The reserve, which Haskell helped establish, has become a poster child for a broader, controversial effort to dot the US coastlines with marine protected areas (MPAs). Their purposes range from protecting sensitive marine habitats such as the Tortugas Ecological Reserve to preserving cultural sites, such as the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary off Cape Hatteras, N.C., the final resting place of the Civil War ironclad USS Monitor.
Overall, proponents say, the push for MPAs represents a broadening recognition among ecologists and biologists that efforts to protect single species - long the approach of many fisheries managers - are likely to fail unless the ecosystem that supports them is protected as well.
"How much can we take out of the ocean and still maintain a healthy fishery and ecosystem? That's the real experiment," says Jim Bohnsack, a marine biologist with NOAA's Southeast Fisheries Science Center in Miami. "The most important part of science is having a control.... Marine reserves are our control."
The MPA effort stems from an order of President Clinton, directing NOAA to catalog existing marine reserves and determine whether to expand existing sites or designate new ones.
For all the trappings of 21st-century marine science, the notion of conserving fish habitats stretches back at least 800 years, notes Michael Fogarty, a researcher at the NOAA's Northeast Fisheries Science Center.
As early as 1366, the House of Commons in Britain banned dredging in certain areas to protect aquatic plants, oysters, mussels, and fish. "[This is] what we would recognize today as an ecosystems approach," he said during a symposium on MPAs at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution last week.
But when British scientist Thomas Huxley pronounced coastal fisheries inexhaustible in 1884, "that set the stage for the general perception that the seas are inexhaustible," Dr. Fogarty says.
Ironically, scientists conducted experiments a year later in Scotland's Firth of Forth to test Huxley's notion. They found that overharvesting could occur and had serious effects on local ecosystems. But they had a hard time outshouting Huxley.
These days, evidence that the sea does not represent an inexhaustible food bank is mounting. According to the UN Food and Agricultural Organization, 60 percent of known fishing stocks need "urgent" management to prevent them from collapsing.
In July, a team of marine scientists from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, Calif., reported the results of a study to track the evolution of aquatic habitats in coastal areas around the world.
Noting that "historical abundances of consumer species were fantastically large in comparison with recent observations," the team concluded that overfishing has played a greater role in the collapse of coastal ecosystems than any other human influence. Their work appeared in the July 27 issue of the journal Science.
For the US alone, 46 percent of the nation's fisheries are deemed unhealthy, says Roger Griffis, with NOAA's newly established MPA Center. In the face of such numbers, as well as other environmental changes and demands stemming from population growth, "the question is: How are we going to zone our ocean resources?" he says.
Researchers and environmentalists say marine protected areas hold a number of potential benefits. They provide vital havens that can support aquatic plants and animals.
Once such areas have been established, researchers say they would expect to see the fish roam beyond the boundaries of the MPAs, rebuilding fisheries farther afield. Combined with conventional fisheries management, MPAs could be an important tool for sustainable harvesting of fish, they say.
Yet the notion of locking up greater portions of US coastal areas - at least for the sake of fisheries - is meeting with mixed reviews from the commercial fishing industry.
"Widening the network of no-take reserves is a greater threat to the productivity of fisheries than overfishing," says Richard Allen, a lobster fisherman from Wakefield, R.I., and fellow in the Pew Charitable Trust's program in marine conservation. He notes that while an MPA may protect fish and expand their populations within its boundaries, the pressure is likely to grow on the fisheries outside the boundaries.
Even proponents of MPAs acknowledge that the jury is still out on the impact reserves can have on improving stocks outside their boundaries.
"It doesn't make sense to preserve an area and trash the rest," Mr. Allen says. He holds that traditional approaches, such as limiting catches, limiting gear, and reducing the size of fishing fleets through quotas, are sufficiently effective to manage fisheries.
Yet in the face of growing pressure from scientists, environmentalists, and the federal government, opposition to additional MPAs faces an uphill battle.
NOAA's Haskell notes that when his agency and the National Park Service released their final management plan for the Keys a few years ago, it included the stated intention to design the new Tortugas reserve. That provision "was notice to everybody that the train was leaving the station, and you can either get on it or stand in front of it," he says.
Such attitudes rile some conservatives in Congress who come from states with large tracts of land whose use the federal government restricts. During the spring and summer, some House members deleted $3 million from the president's budget aimed at implementing the executive order on MPAs. Then, when a conference committee restored the money, opponents inserted language into the budget provision that restricted NOAA to cataloging existing MPAs.
Even as Congress wrestles with the issue, many in Washington are looking to California as the next major test of the science and politics behind MPAs. Under its Marine Life Protection Act, the state is grappling with plans to establish a string of reserves along the length of its coastline. In addition, federal and state officials are laying plans to set up marine-protected areas around the Channel Islands, off Santa Barbara.
At the root of the efforts lies what NOAA's Dr. Bohnsack calls the precautionary principle.
"We do not know where the trouble lights are on marine ecosystems," he says. And in the effort to find out, the quest for the right solution comes down to conflicting ethics
"Most governments and universities operate under the utilitarian conservation ethic. It says that essentially the resources are to be used by humans, and our biggest sin is to be inefficient and wasteful. It's run by economics. The problem is that when you push up to the economic limits, you're close to biological failure. It becomes people versus critters. People tend to win those particular arguments," Bohnsack says.
For his money, he holds that to be effective, management approaches should be driven by the view that "we're part of the environment, we're part of the marine ecosystem. Our job is to maintain the integrity, beauty, and stability of the system" if humans hope to continue earning a living, playing, and eating by the sea.