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Needed: Underwater ‘national parks’

Set-asides can restore ocean balance and diversity – but all stakeholders must buy into them.

By Moises Velasquez-ManoffStaff Writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 25, 2008

Banning fishing in areas around California's Channel Islands has resulted in healthier kelp forests, which support more fish.

Courtesy of Robert Schwemmer/NOAA

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Santa Barbara, Calif.

“It seems to be working,” says John Ugoretz, a habitat conservation manager with California’s Department of Fish and Game. He’s aboard a furiously bobbing 40-foot research vessel, Garibaldi, a few miles from Santa Cruz, the largest island in the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary. By “it” he means the marine sanctuary around the islands, which lie some 25 miles off Santa Barbara’s coast. Five years ago, fishing was either prohibited or greatly limited in about one-fifth of the ocean around the islands. Since then, the marine protected areas (MPAs) have seen a greater abundance of marine life. It’s almost more than many involved in the effort dared to expect. They thought that the benefits, if there were any, would be at least a decade in coming. That’s what Mr. Ugoretz means by “working.”

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“When you create marine protected areas, you end up impacting people’s livelihoods,” says Ugoretz. “It’s good to know that it actually works.”

MPAs protect a portion of the ocean and its inhabitants the way a national park does on land. Fishing and other human activities are restricted or banned, so fishermen tend to view them with suspicion. But scientists increasingly think that they are key to sustaining sea-life diversity and bounty.

In times past, vast areas of the ocean were naturally off limits to human activity. They were too distant or too deep to fish. Scientists now say that the abundance humans associate with the sea was possible only because of these natural refuges. But technology has made nearly every corner of the ocean accessible. Humans fish almost everywhere. Many say the added burden of climate change, with its potentially negative effects on sea life, makes the establishment of refuges even more urgent.

“The only places that will serve as refuges in the ocean are those places we intentionally put off limits,” says Callum Roberts, a professor of conservation at the University of York, England. “We have to … take control of the refuges ourselves.”

The national-park metaphor works from a conservation point of view as well. Nations have long protected swaths of wilderness not only out of utility, but also because they were viewed as part of a natural heritage. The sea deserves the same consideration, the argument goes.

“There’s a value in having unaltered areas,” says Pete Raimondi, chair of the University of California at Santa Cruz’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. “It’s a good idea to set aside sites for our children that are kind of pristine.”

Scientists often cite Australia’s 1,200-mile-long Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, established in 1975, as the best example of a large, well-managed MPA. Although closures for military and other uses created de facto MPAs earlier, the US’s first national marine sanctuary was established in 1975 around the remains of a sunken Civil War-era ship, the USS Monitor, off North Carolina’s coast. That was just over 100 years after the first US national park was established. Today the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration oversees 13 such MPAs.

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