Marine Protected Areas hold promise for better fishing and economic boost
Among the spate of recent setbacks for America’s seas and the fishermen who make a living on them, at least one ongoing effort provides a glimmer of hope: California’s implementation of the Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA), a law calling for establishment of a statewide network of marine protected areas. California has now created protected areas around the Channel Islands and along the central coast from Mendocino County to Santa Barbara County. The designation process is underway in waters off the south and north coasts. Evidence already shows that areas protected consistent with this law can benefit fishermen as well as protect ocean biodiversity and productivity.
Like national parks and refuges on land, marine protected areas are science-based safe havens where wildlife can rebuild and thrive. Over the past decade, a litany of scientific studies has shown that marine protected areas around the world benefit sea life and habitats. For example, recent research shows that in no-take marine reserves around California’s Channel Islands, fish are significantly bigger and more plentiful and kelp is healthier, just five years after creation of those reserves.
Healthier ocean systems draw divers, tide-poolers, wildlife watchers, and other ocean lovers to the coast. And as fish get bigger in a protected area, productivity can increase exponentially relative to fished areas, seeding those surrounding areas with larvae and fish. Steve Gaines, Dean of the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management at UC Santa Barbara, summed up recent findings: “there is plenty of new evidence to show that if reserves are designed well, they can benefit both fish and fishermen.”
At the same time, evidence refutes the concern that marine protected areas will hurt fishing industry bottom lines. Despite sport fishing industry predictions that a network of marine reserves around the northern Channel Islands would cause $50 to $100 million dollars in economic losses, scientific monitoring has shown that sport fishing actually increased in the five years after reserves were established, as did commercial landings of squid, sea urchin, and lobster. Marine reserves elsewhere have shown similar results: in the Great Barrier Reef, despite fishing industry concerns about losses, the number of recreational fishing licenses has continued its upward trend since the reserves were established in 2003.
As a conservation group, NRDC has a fundamental common interest with fishermen: we want bigger, healthier and more plentiful fish in our seas. We all benefit from good ocean management and investments in the long-term health of marine ecosystems. And we all suffer when ocean management doesn’t make the grade.
Marine protected areas are a vital complement to fishery management, helping maintain the diverse web of life and bolstering resilience of ocean systems in the face of a wide range of threats, including global climate change. They protect fragile nursery habitats and vulnerable species. For a state that has experienced a collapse of all five commercial abalone fisheries, sharp declines in sand bass, kelp bass and other sport-caught fish, extensive loss of kelp on the south coast and a rockfish disaster, they are a smart hedge against the next crisis.
For all these reasons, NRDC is a strong supporter of the inclusive, science-based MLPA initiative in California. We take issue with efforts of some in the sport fishing industry, including Shimano, a manufacturer of fishing gear and bike parts, to suspend that process—a call at odds with the company’s stated commitment to science based conservation. Over a year ago, we reached out to Shimano directly to discuss the MLPA and the benefits of protected areas. Recently the company accepted that request, and we look forward to the opportunity for constructive dialogue. We value our collaborative relationship with fishermen on a host of initiatives, from salmon and river restoration to fighting for clean water. NRDC has not initiated, nor is it conducting a boycott against Shimano or any other opponent of the MLPA process.
Proactive steps now to safeguard ocean life and habitats will help save us the bigger, costlier adjustments that come from poor ocean management. The MLPA gives Californians a unique opportunity to ensure ocean vitality over the long term, and NRDC enthusiastically supports this forward-looking effort.
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