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In October, 2006, the California Fish & Game Commission designated a network of sites along the States central coast roughly from Año Nuevo in the north to south of Morro Bay as marine protected areas (MPAs) under Californias Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA). In December, the Commission followed up by voting to begin the process for designating sites next along the north central coast from Año Nuevo probably to Point Arena. This decision overturned an earlier one to take the process to Southern California, after sportfishing groups and municipalities said not in our back yard (the science here is political as much as it is biological).
Added to the MLPA effort, California established marine protected areas, including a number of no-take (i.e., no fishing) reserves, in state waters within the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary. and the National Marine Sanctuary program is now looking to extend those into federal waters. The Monterey Bay sanctuary is also champing at the bit to put no fishing zones in its bailiwick.
The push for marine protected areas (MPAs), sometimes referred to as marine reserves, or even sometimes called ocean wilderness by some PR flaks, refers to those spaces of ocean where some or all human activity is prohibited. This is not simply a California phenomena, however, although (for better or worse) that state fancies itself as the national leader. A large marine reserve was established off the Florida Keys following lengthy negotiations with fishermen, marine scientists, environmentalists and government agencies. Up the Atlantic Seaboard, a proposal has been put forward for an MPA off New England. Theyve already had an extensive closed area in the Gulf of Maine to protect fish stocks.
Besides the activity in California, here on the west coast the Oregon Ocean Policy Advisory Committee (OPAC) has a committee right now looking at possible MPAs all along the Oregon coastline, and the Pacific Fishery Management Council will soon be taking them up as well. Theres even a group out there calling itself the Baja to Bering initiative to promote marine protected areas along this whole side of the north Pacific.
Out in Hawaii, in a flurry of press releases, even the biggest knuckle draggers in government are trying to paint themselves green by closing off a vast area of water in the northern islands to a handful of small fishing boats. Of course its not costing the politicos anything, nor the enviros, so theyre more than happy to close the fishery -- but are they actually protecting anything?
Nationally, the Marine Protected Areas Federal Advisory Committee (MPAFAC) is getting ready to review the comments on the Draft Framework for Developing a National System of Marine Protected Areas. This is being done pursuant to the President Clintons Executive Order on MPAs made just before he left office. President Bush rescinded a good Clinton Executive Order on roadless areas (at the behest of the timber industry), but he has let this one stand.
Internationally, the creation of marine protected areas, or the set-aside of waters where fishing is prohibited, is in vogue with everything from proposals for expanding Australias barrier reef parks to new marine parks off Scotland. Theyre not just being promoted for conservation among island nations for eco-tourism as part of economic development.
Now that were headlong into the MPA process, it may be useful to stand back and look from the fishing perspective not just at the costs, such as lost fishing grounds, but at what benefits may accrue to our marine environment or to fishermen from these protected areas. A more thoughtful approach is essential.
As is obvious, the greatest concern among fishing communities is what will be lost. Some of the areas that have been established or are being proposed are in rich fishing grounds -- not surprising because this is usually where the best habitats are. The not unexpected reaction, as we witnessed with the Recreational Fishing Alliance that has used the issue to build membership and raise money, has been not one inch. Where fishing, either recreational or commercial, is the dominant economic force in the community this visceral reaction works to recruit knee-jerk opposition. The trouble is that California is not Alaska, nor is Florida Maine. The rules for one often do not apply to the other.
These kinds of unreasoned visceral reactions are not just coming from the fishing industry, however. Many in the environmental community, and some of the scientists, are of the impression that the larger and more restrictive these protective areas are the better. Size matters they like to say, sounding like desperate housewives. And because fishing is the one activity that is visibly removing fish from an area, MPA discussions have been almost exclusively about fishing and focused solely on restricting or banning it.
Indeed, the appeal for support of MPAs so far has been almost totally visceral. Comparisons to our national parks and wilderness areas are frequently made to describe the need to save the last remaining ocean wilderness. Images of marine mammals, sea birds and tropical fish are used to sell the concept that the oceans flora and fauna will be saved if we just establish these reserves, all with the idea that the larger the network and the bigger the reserve, more will be saved.
When negotiations are entered into, its often been from the standpoint of the fisheries to keep the footprint of a MPA as small as possible or put it in someone elses fishing grounds. Proponents on the other hand have sought to make MPAs as large as possible and as restrictive as they can namely, huge no take (no fishing) reserves.
These types of negotiations almost inevitably end up stuck on the issue of percentage of area, as if theres some magic number where an MPA works or doesnt. Predictably, fishermen have argued for the least percentage of area off limits, and the environmental advocates have argued for 20 or 30 percent of the whole ocean at times, regardless of the ecological characteristics of an area.
The problem, weve seen to date, is that there is very little thoughtful discussion on either side. The fishing industry has - largely out of fear that if they give up something, even more will be asked of them not given adequate consideration to habitat protection or nursery area refuges as a way to actually support resident fish populations.
The environmental community, on the other hand, has approached the issue not as science or with any comprehension of natural processes, but as a campaign to gain as much area as possible, marching into battle with conservation on their side but often no real science. All too often, whether the fishery closures result in any real conservation or protection (theres considerably less interest in follow-up monitoring, for example) doesnt matter. What matters is staking claim to the greatest amount of ocean real estate possible, as often this is the deliverable to bring back to their funders.
Opposition to the loss of fishing grounds is understandable (and some would say predictable) from the fishing industry. However, its well to remember that history is replete with numerous examples of where fishermen have voluntarily lowered catches, shrunk seasons, restricted effort or closed areas where it would help fish stocks. They have done this as well to protect non-target species and habitats. Its really a no-brainer. Most fishermen understand that their livelihoods depend on both conservation of fish stocks and the environment. This isnt altruism, its dollars and cents.
If fishermen saw real genuine conservation benefits from the creation of MPAs, theyd be championing them, not fighting them. This fact, however, is lost on many in the environmental community, and certainly among the appointed blue-ribbon panels those folks that are supposed to be smarter than you or I.
So lets take a closer, more thoughtful look at what MPAs may do, how we got to where we are, their limitations, and some better strategies for protecting our fish and ocean ecosystems.
MPAs fall generally into two classes: those that restrict activities and those that prohibit them. Mostly the activity in question is fishing. Thus, there are MPAs created that ban only certain types of fishing gear, fishing for certain species, or a particular class of fishermen, such as commercial fishermen in the case of some marine parks. Others, most commonly referred to as marine reserves, are just gigantic no fishing zones for everyone.
What the science has shown, however, is that generally there are more fish, or at least resident fish, and they tend to be larger, when fishing is restricted or prohibited within these areas. The benefits then may be: 1) the expansion of the larger fish populations outside of the MPA; 2) more fecund animals by allowing them to grow larger; and 3) the protection of those fish which broadly spawn to areas outside of the MPA. What really needs to be asked, however, is whether there is any fishery benefit from more or larger fish (e.g., will they simply be limited by carrying capacity if theres no fishing; will the larger ones hold down the population of smaller ones by preying on them and thereby limiting diversity within a population?).
Sensitive habitats may also be protected by establishing MPAs through bans on those types of fishing gear that contact or damage important habitat, including heavy bottom trawls, dredges, even traps or anchors that can damage some habitats. The habitats of concern here are primarily hard structures, including corals, since soft and sandy bottoms will move with the current as any crab fisherman can attest and trawls and dredges would not likely have any lasting impacts on this type of seafloor.
All this is elementary to a fisherman, but gets lost in the debate. If one looks closely at the science, it basically verifies what most of us already know. The truth is that there have been no great revelations from all the papers that have been done so far on marine protected areas, despite what the authors may think. In fact, while there has been a plethora of papers on MPAs, there has been a dearth of original research on the systems. Our esteemed marine scientists have taken recycling to new heights.
The questions that should be asked then in establishing MPAs and similar types of protection are:
1) What fish (or other marine life) will benefit are more fish and/or larger ones needed to expand outside of the MPA or broadcast spawn outside of the area?
2) If there is a benefit to be had from more or larger fish within an area, is it necessary to restrict or ban all fishing, or just those fisheries targeting or taking the species of concern?
3) What is the nature of the habitat or ecosystem to be protected, and is fishing affecting it?
4) If fishing is affecting the habitat, what type of fishing? Will restricting or prohibiting certain types of gear provide the needed protection, or is a ban on all fishing required?
5) Finally, is a given area the only one with the desired characteristics, or are there other areas possessing equal values which may not be as heavily utilized (to minimize impacts on fishing)?
The above are the basic questions we think need to be asked at the outset of any MPA discussion, instead of whether MPAs have any value or simply stating not in my backyard. What will likely result, if it is determined a site would have value, is that restrictions can be targeted without having to enact total prohibitions. That may not be satisfactory to some environmental groups hung up on size -- but then the purpose of MPAs should be for true conservation, not to screw fishermen.
Now this brings us to another issue. So far weve been talking only about fishing either restrictions or bans within MPAs. However, we all know that fishing is just one factor affecting fish stocks and the marine environment. What about pollution, vessel traffic and other uses (or misuses) of our oceans?
To date little has been done to provide protection for these areas, other than to regulate fishing. And that gets to the point of what purpose MPAs are really serving? Considering the extensive authority the feds under the reauthorized Magnuson-Stevens Act now have, and consider also state fishery authorities. Are MPAs even needed, just to control fishing? If theyre not going to address pollution and other non-fishing impacts on marine life and habitats, then what purpose do they serve other than to make life even more difficult for fishermen?
The argument heard ad nauseum in California from the fishery agency, the states Blue Ribbon Task Force, and environmentalists is that MPAs are not about fishery management. However, to date at least, all the process has been about restricting or prohibiting fishing and nothing else. The state has been loathe to attack pollution, for instance and there are serious problems with stormwater and agricultural run-off, for example, that affect these same areas or indeed to tackle anything but fishing impacts. Otters are dying from pollution, not fishing activity. Health warnings on fish in Santa Monica Bay are not due to fishing, but to pollution. But dont count on a room full of environmentalists with placards at a Water Quality Control Board hearing (to be fair, the fishing industry has also been missing in action at these meetings), thats too difficult, too complex and theres no clear deliverable for a funder.
From what we have seen, it isnt much different in other states or in other parts of the world. As the old saying goes, if it looks like a duck, and walks like a duck and quacks like a duck Most MPAs, thus, are nothing more than fishing restrictions or no fishing zones. No other protection is offered, in spite of the fact that other impacts can be far more destructive.
The fact is, current fishing authority, if properly used, could probably do a better job protecting marine resources than the current MPA systems -- at least the way theyre currently being implemented. There is already authority to close broad areas to fishing, as weve seen with the cow cod closure. There is already authority to ban certain types of fishing gear, such as restrictions placed on the areas where bottom trawling can occur. There is already authority to implement size limits minimum and maximum -- to provide for larger fish. There is already authority to limit fishing, close fishing, etc. Why is an MPA system, outside of duplicating already existing fishery management, even needed?
Weve seen that MPAs are often established -- many more restrictive than conservation warrants because the right questions are not being asked. Weve also seen that theyre only being used to restrict or prohibit fishing, nothing else. But their worse failing may be their limited geographic scope.
We already know that no fishing areas, established by marine reserves, will not have much effect on highly migratory species. These species can be caught, even overfished, well outside of any MPA. Likewise, even the most restrictive MPA is useless to prevent inshore pollution washing into its water, or to stop an oil spill at its boundaries. Also, dont count on much being alive in any MPA in the Gulf of Mexico, or even the coast of Oregon, once a dead zone moves in.
In the best of circumstances an MPA may provide some protection for habitats and a little protection for fish mainly the resident species that are not migratory. But MPAs, as we saw with the recent oil spill in a Philippines marine park, will not protect against pollution, oil spills, or overfishing outside of their boundaries. Some MPA advocates admit this tool is not a panacea. In fact MPAs provide no more protection for marine life than a gated community does for its residents. They may keep out the trick-or-treaters and the folks driving around during the holidays looking at Christmas light displays, but are no protection whatsoever against serious crime, theft or pollution.
If MPAs are at best a weak tool for protecting marine life, why all the expense and effort then to push them, to hold them out as the oceans last best hope? We dont fathom any deep conspiracies by environmentalists, foundations or government agencies. It seems to us the old barroom banner S___ Happens, plus a dose of short-sightedness, may be a better explanation.
Many concerned and dedicated marine scientists have been frustrated by what theyve seen as real threats to our fisheries and oceans, and didnt believe fishery management could work. Others, of course, saw the designation of areas of ocean as great research tools and, consequently, funding opportunities. The environmental community felt it needed something more tangible than constant vigilance and lawsuits to show to its members and funders to keep the dollars rolling in. MPAs, in the form of neat little circles on a chart, provided such a deliverable. Likewise funders mainly the large foundations have business CEOs sitting on their boards, most with no understanding of environmental battles, much less the fundamentals of marine protection. They wanted results, tangible deliverables. Imagine Donald Trump trying to tell any of us how best to protect or manage a fish stock and you have an idea of the problem.
For PCFFA, we offered up a policy to the State of California in 1997, (our MPA white paper is on our website at: www.pcffa.org/mpa3.htm) admonishing that each marine conservation issue has to be looked at site-by-site as well as species-by-species, and that MPAs would only work by addressing all factors affecting marine life and within the context of broader marine protections. In fact, PCFFA supported the MLPA to try to bring science to the foreground in reviewing existing and re-establishing any future protected areas off the coast, not to mention bringing some sense to a patchwork quilt of more than 100 pre-existing protected areas, many of which had little purpose and even less science to support them.
Prior to that there was only legislation sponsored by politically well-connected zanies from Malibu, and other wealthy coastal communities, merely wanting to stop any activity in front of their beach houses. Some sense, some order had to be brought into the process and the MLPA bill did offer that hope. Unfortunately, since then the implementation of the Act has been a travesty dominated by dilettantes with no real interest in understanding the issues and little or no science to back them up.
So here we are with this army of rabid MPA advocates charging off mindlessly like the Light Brigade. The Light Brigade was slaughtered as a result. The enviros may not be slaughtered themselves in this one, but if things do not change they wont do anything lasting for conservation in the long run, and itll probably be the fishermen who are needlessly slaughtered in the end.
What is so tragic in all of this is that in the process of mindlessly pushing the MPA fad forward the environmental community is alienating some of its natural allies in the bigger marine conservation battles, such as fighting offshore oil development or even improving fishery management.
Worse yet, the very people who care about our oceans the least will simply seize on the MPA concept to justify doing whatever they want with the rest of the oceans. When enough of the ocean is thus protected the rest will be opened up for unfettered exploitation for aquaculture, mining and oil development and utterly trashed. We saw some of this in the 109th Congress and it could come back again at any time.
Its not hard to imagine a future Resources Committee chair or some future Secretary of Interior in the vein of Jim Watt, saying Well youve got your 25 percent protected, now we need to drill, mine, extract or whatever we damn well please in the other 75 percent. After, all you told us MPAs were the last best hope for the oceans and now youve got them! Dont be complaining about pollution or what we do outside your reserves, weve got Americas business to protect.
Our intent here is not to attack MPAs and undermine marine conservation. MPAs, if carefully and thoughtfully applied, do have the potential to be a useful conservation tool to protect and benefit fisheries. It is, rather, to ensure that we have sound marine conservation measures in place that will be effective. Unlike all the other interest groups, it is the fishing industry that will suffer the most if sound policies and programs are not in place for conserving fish stocks and ocean ecosystems.
MPAs may have some limited value, much as PCFFA pointed out in its white paper policy statement. However, to perpetuate the notion that these are the last, best hope for our oceans is tantamount to environmental fraud. Its time to refocus funds and effort on the bigger issues threatening our oceans. This means fishermen, enviros, foundations and government. Real strides were made last year to improve our nations fishery management with the MSA reauthorization. Now lets begin to tackle the other threats to our fish and oceans.
Lets begin by focusing on some of the more serious pollution threats to ocean health, including agricultural runoff that creates giant dead zones in our rivers and coastal oceans; offshore oil development; mercury contamination coming from coal fired power plants, legacy mines and other sources that are contaminating fish; endocrine disruptors emanating from the untreated pharmaceuticals in our municipal sewage outflows that are changing the behavior, even sex, of fish, and so forth. There are plenty of opportunities for improvement on all these and many more fronts.
Theres also much to do combating aquatic invasive species that threaten native fish populations and whole ecosystems. Finally, we need to be sure that we have an aquaculture act in place that will protect, not threaten, our oceans and fish.
To the extent discreet areas of ocean need additional protection lets consider zoning or some other means, but always in the context of protecting all of our ocean waters and all our marine life. In truth, unless we protect it all, we cant protect any of it, for all of it is interconnected.
Zeke Grader is the Executive Director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermens Associations (PCFFA), the west coasts largest trade association of commercial fishing families. Glen Spain is the PCFFA Northwest Regional Director. PCFFA can be reached at its Southwest Office at PO Box 29370, San Francisco, CA 94129-0370, (415)561-5080, and at its Northwest Office at PO Box 11170, Eugene, OR 97440-3370, (541)689-2000 or by email to: email@example.com. PCFFAs Internet Home Page is at: www.pcffa.org.
For more information on the Marine Protected Areas Federal Advisory Committee, e-mail: Lauren.Wenzel@noaa.gov. For more information on Californias Marine Life Protection Act process, go to: www.dfg.ca.gov/mrd/mlpa/regulatorydocs.html. For information on Oregons Ocean Policy Advisory Committee work on marine protected areas, go to: www.oregon.gov/LCD/OPAC. For more information on pollution threats and what fishermen can do, contact the Waterkeeper Alliance at: www.waterkeeper.org. For the PCFFA Policy Statement on Marine Protected Areas, see: www.pcffa.org/mpa3.htm.
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