For underwater national parks

Imagine setting beaver traps along a back-country creek in Yellowstone or felling a pine tree to kill a squirrel in Yosemite Valley. You'd be arrested, and rightly so. Yet it's perfectly legal to drop a fish trap onto fragile coral in the waters surrounding the US Virgin Islands National Park and grab a grouper.

We've long accepted the idea that wilderness and wildlife have intrinsic worth, far different from the cash value of timber, meat, and fur. However, thinking about underwater wilderness still is mired in the 19th century. The first US national park was created in 1872. The first national marine sanctuary was not established until a century later. Even now, "marine sanctuary" does not mean "no fishing." It means "no mining or oil drilling." We protect the habitats of deer, woodpeckers, and prairie dogs. Why don't we protect fish habitats?

The answer lies in ancient attitudes about the sea. We've viewed the ocean as a great watery commons, a supplier of endless bounty. Consider the language of fisheries: "harvests" of snapper, "stocks" of anchovies. But fish are not soybeans, able to spring back after being cut to the roots. In truth, fish are wild animals. We may not have the same emotional attachment to the slick and slimy as the furred and feathered. Yet fish can compare admirably with terrestrial animals. The warm-blooded bluefin tuna, for example, is the cheetah of sea, capable of swimming more than 50 miles an hour.

There is a growing scientific and political consensus that a system of "no-take" marine reserves - a submarine version of US national parks, in which nothing may be harmed or removed, including fish - is needed to protect America's underwater wilderness and wildlife. Last February, 150 leading marine scientists called for the immediate establishment of no-take marine reserve networks to protect biodiversity and fisheries. Last July, the Tortugas Ecological Reserve off Florida became the nation's largest no-take marine reserve. The California Fish and Game Commission is now considering proposals to establish a "necklace" of no-take areas along the California coast.

No-take marine reserves have generated plenty of controversy. Some fishermen insist that protecting fish means persecuting fishermen. But the traditional approach - protecting fishermen instead of the fish that ultimately support them - hasn't worked very well. North Atlantic cod, once among the greatest assemblies of wild creatures on the planet, were fished until the population collapsed in the early 1990s. Thousands of fishermen lost their livelihood. Other recent fishery debacles include rockfish in California, salmon in the Pacific Northwest, and Nassau grouper in the Gulf of Mexico.

No-take marine reserves offer hope for both fish and fishermen. If you're a recreational fisherman in Florida, one of the best places to fish is near Cape Canaveral. A marine reserve was set up in 1962, not to protect fish but to prevent anyone from approaching the space-launch site. A recent study in Science magazine found that by the late '90s, waters surrounding the reserve supplied more world-record size black drum, red drum, and spotted sea trout than all other Florida waters combined. The same researchers looked at a series of small reserves in the Caribbean. Five years after St. Lucia set aside 35 percent of its fishing grounds, catches in adjacent waters rose by 46 to 90 percent.

No-take marine reserves work because protected areas have more fish, larger fish, and a larger variety of fish than unprotected waters. We tend to equate youth with fertility, but for many fish species, fertility increases exponentially with size and age. As fish in reserves age and grow larger, they produce more young. As the reserve's fish population increases, fish move outside, improving catches in surrounding waters.

What about fish that roam across thousands of miles of ocean? Assisted by high-technology satellite tags, scientists are gathering information on valuable commercial species such as tuna. Eventually, even the most wide-ranging fish could have critical habitats protected by no-take marine reserves.

Such reserves can also insure against fishery mismanagement. Consider California's white abalone. The state allowed the highly lucrative fishery to strip-mine the marine mollusk until too few were left to reproduce successfully. The white abalone is now on the endangered species list, and the target of a $10 million dollar, last-ditch captive breeding effort. If California had established a string of no-take marine reserves 30 years ago, the white abalone might not be heading the way of the passenger pigeon.

While no-take marine reserves may benefit fisheries, we should also consider the value of marine life that does not end up on our plate, garnished with lemon. Americans didn't establish Yellowstone so buffalo could breed there and wander across the border to be slaughtered for steaks. They did so to preserve a part of this planet in its true, untouched state.

National parks have been called "the best idea America ever had." It's time to extend that inspiration underwater.

• Pamela S. Turner is a science writer and recreational abalone diver.

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