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Needed: Underwater ‘national parks’

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

(Page 2 of 3)

About 13 percent of Earth’s land is protected, up from 3 percent in 1962. But less than 1 percent of the world’s seas enjoy protection of any kind, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), a nonprofit environmental group. Only a tiny fraction – 0.05 percent – is completely off limits to fishing. The IUCN estimates that, as on land, between 20 and 30 percent of the sea should be set aside to preserve marine ecosystems. International organizations, including IUCN, the G-8 Group of Nations, and the Convention on Biological Diversity, have called for the establishment of a worldwide MPA network representing the entire range of marine ecosystems by 2012, a goal many consider noble if not entirely realistic.

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But many countries are moving ahead. As of 2004, South Africa has 0.4 percent of its 200-mile-wide exclusive economic zone (EEZ) protected, and is looking to expand it. New Zealand hopes to have 10 percent of its EEZ protected by 2010. And back in 2000, President Bill Clinton signed an executive order calling for the strengthening and expansion of the nation’s MPAs. In 2006, President George Bush signed the 139,797-square-mile Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument into law. Today it’s second in area only to the California-size (158,453 square miles) refuge created this year by the small Pacific island nation of Kiribati. Not counting de facto reserves – areas off limits for reasons like shipping and military use – the US currently has about 3 percent of its EEZ protected for conservation purposes.

Some states, meanwhile, are moving ahead in state waters, which extend out three miles from shore. California’s Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) Initiative, an ambitious attempt to establish an MPA network along the state’s 1,100-mile coastline, just completed a laborious, year-long phase. Heartened by results so far in the Channel Islands, in April a 45-person stakeholder group that included fishermen, divers, teachers, and harbor masters submitted proposals for the north central coast. Many say the proposal was as much an experiment in sociology as it was in marine biology.

The classic approach is to simply declare an area off limits. But increasingly scientists and lawmakers see that if those living near MPAs don’t buy in, the MPA will exist only on paper. This is a global problem. Of the 1,300 MPAs worldwide, says Robert Steneck, a professor of oceanography at the University of Maine’s Darling Marine Center in Walpole, Maine, most are ineffectual.

“Until the fishing community can see that it’s in their best interest … there will simply not be enough government agencies on the planet to make protected areas work,” he says. “It has to come from the stakeholders.”

Fishing removes both large species and larger individuals within a species. But larger fish are much more fertile, producing an exponentially greater number of eggs compared with smaller fish. In theory, MPAs provide a haven for BOFFs (big old fat females), creating a de facto nursery. Fish larvae then spill over and replenish adjacent areas. Indeed, satel­lite data from the US Northeast show that the most intense fishing – and presumably the best catches – occur along the borders of closed areas.