Needed: Underwater ‘national parks’

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

By , Staff Writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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

“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.

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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.

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.

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.

MPAs have other, less-direct effects. In California’s Channel Islands, for example, lobsters have grown in size and abundance since closure. Bigger lobsters eat more sea urchins. Sea urchins eat kelp, so fewer urchins means more kelp. The end result of more lobsters is a healthier kelp forest, which provides more habitat for ­seaweed-loving fish like kelp bass.
Increased biodiversity is another gain. Like diverse stock portfolios, biologically diverse ecosystems tend to fail less often than simpler ones. They’re more resilient to disease and extreme weather.

Intact ecosystems are thus more likely to survive the predicted disturbances of human-induced climate change. And for fisheries biologists, closed areas serve as a reference, a way to determine what percentage of observed changes are due to local human impacts versus natural variation or global climate change.

“Climate change is going to affect inside and outside, but now you can actually use [MPAs] to decouple the relative effects of climate change from the effects of fishing,” says Mark Carr, a professor of marine ecology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and science adviser to California’s MLPA Initiative.

Confronted with the prospect of losing fishing grounds, fishermen often assume they’ll lose income, too. But Chris Costello, an associate professor of resource economics at the University of California, Santa Barbara, says MPAs’ economic impact depends on placement. If they are placed wisely (closing remote areas that are costly to fish, anyway, rather than heavily fished ones that are closer), economic losses can be minimized. In closing some 20 percent of California’s north central coast, for example, he estimates only a 6 percent loss to fishermen. Modeling indicates that if MPAs are placed in alignment with ocean currents, they can continually flood adjacent areas with larvae, having a net positive effect on nearby fisheries.

“This is not intuitive to policymakers or fishermen,” Dr. Costello says. But “at least in theory, you can have your cake and eat it, too.”

Scientists conceived California’s MPAs as a network. Each area has to be larger than the distances that target organisms wander, 6 to 12-1/2 miles along the coastline and extending three miles out to sea. They have to be spaced close enough (no more than 62 miles apart) so that larvae from one MPA can drift and settle into another. Designed with the greater whole in mind, in theory the network’s benefit will be greater than the sum of its parts.

Not everyone agrees with all the assumptions guiding the process.

Ray Hilborn, a professor at the University of Washington’s School of Fishery and Aquatic Sciences in Seattle, and a science adviser to the north central coast process, thinks the presumed benefits to fisheries are questionable. The MPAs are only large enough to protect the least mobile of species, which leaves out commercially important ones like hake, squid, and sardines – open-water species that swim hundreds of miles during feeding and spawning cycles.

Also, he says, traditional management schemes are working fine in California waters. (Many fault poor oceanographic conditions and water use in the Sacramento River, not overfishing, for this year’s dramatic West Coast Chinook salmon collapse.)

“The MLPA was basically sold on the … ‘ecosystem is in trouble’ perspective,” he says. “And I think that’s a serious exaggeration.” The network should be called what it is, he says: a biodiversity tool.

Indeed, the Marine Life Protection Act explicitly declares conservation as a primary goal, a fact not lost on either scientists or stakeholders.

“We went in there knowing we were going to have to give up some [fishing] grounds,” says Michael McHenry of Half Moon Bay, Calif., who has fished for nearly 40 years. “We just tried to go in and soften the blow.”

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