A Case for Marine Reserves

by John Dutton
Summer 2003

I'm standing waist-deep in the surf on a beach along the Santa Barbara Channel, fly rod in hand, and 15-pound striped bass busting bait all around me. I cast desperately for a hook-up. My excitement isn't so much about the catching as it is about the fishing itself – to see this much energy and life in the ocean is a rare thrill.

Old-timers tell of fishing like this as a regular event in Southern California. To modern anglers accustomed to scarcity, their tales sound like fantasy: schools of football-sized bonito blasting in and out of the pier pilings, runs of white sea bass chasing bait in the surf. The irony for me here today is that these stripers feeding around me aren't even natives; they're East Coast transplants brought to the West Coast in the late 1800s.

The Pacific Ocean, beyond the car window on a morning commute, varies from day to day – sometimes gray and cold, sometimes blue and sparkling, sometimes white and wind-whipped – but there is little indication of what is happening beneath the surface. If you drive through a subdivision that was once open space, or see a clear-cut that was once forest, the destruction is obvious. But the commute along Highway 101 doesn't reveal the clean, scraped bottoms where draggers have been, or the wasted bycatch of drift nets and longlines. The ocean hides its wounds, but the damage is there.

California rockfish, a group of long-lived species commonly sold as "Pacific red snapper," have dropped to such low numbers that last year, the California Department of Fish and Game (DFG) closed 8,500 square miles of the continental shelf off California to fishing the bottom habitat of these species. Low numbers of other species tell a similar story of overfishing. Look at the catch records for many commercially caught species in Southern California: more fishermen, more effective fishing techniques and technology, fewer fish caught. Local and national scientists warn of an impending crash in fisheries and ocean biodiversity.

Those same scientists identify a possible solution: marine reserves. Until now, fisheries were managed by using size and bag limits for individual fish, ignoring the delicate interactions of fish within an ecosystem. Marine reserves take a different approach, setting aside protected areas that represent the diversity of habitats within an ecosystem, and allowing them to recover and seed the surrounding areas. Evidence that reserves are needed, and that they will work, is overwhelming. In the more than 100 marine reserves worldwide, research at 80 locations in both temperate and tropical reserve waters showed that, on average, the biomass (the total weight of all organisms) is four times greater, the number of different species is 1.7 times greater, the population density triples and the body size of organisms increases by 1.8. Just this January, another study was released, this time by the respected Pew Oceans Commission, that supported the value of reserves.

Currently less than .01 percent of U.S. waters are protected by reserves, but that is changing, especially in California where marine reserves are proposed throughout the state. In the fall of 2002, the California Fish and Game Commission, spurred on by overwhelming support from California residents, designated a reserve system for the Channel Islands in state waters. The Channel Islands, off the Santa Barbara coast, are well suited for such protection: They sit right on the boundary of northern and southern ecosystems, with a strong mixing of warm and cold currents, and contain one of the most diverse groupings of marine mammals in the world. Next, the national fisheries management will consider a matching Channel Islands reserve program in federal waters, and the DFG will consider more reserves along the California coast.

Those most loudly opposed to reserves are fishing groups – social, business and political organizations of commercial fishermen, recreational fishing businesses (such as charter boat operators and tackle shop owners) and individual fishermen. Their objections revolve around several points. First, they don't believe that a problem even exists. They believe that the scientific research indicating dangerously low fish populations is wrong, and that faith in reserves is based on an acceptance of junk science. Commercial fishermen are most opposed because of the short-term economic impact reserves will have. Recreational fishing groups don't believe they've caused the problem and therefore shouldn't have to pay to solve it. But recreational anglers' opposition is primarily fueled by their conviction that reserves are a threat to their way of life. On a recreational fishing electronic bulletin board, one fisherman wrote: "There will be fish left for the next generation, there just won't be any legal way to take [our] kids fishing."

At the same time, many recreational and commercial fishermen support reserves. Tellingly, the first to propose reserves at the Channel Islands was a group of fishermen from the Oxnard/Ventura area who had seen a substantial drop in fish populations over the course of 20 or 30 years fishing at the Channel Islands.

The Channel Islands marine reserves decision was a difficult one, and deciding on proposed reserves along the California coast will be equally difficult. At stake is a $1.4 billion sport and commercial fishing industry, an industry already embattled by decreasing fish stocks, decreasing catches and increasing regulations. But continue the current trend and the fishing industry will suffer more.

Reserves aren't the only answer (restrictions on long-lining, gill-netting and bottom-dragging are also needed), but reserves are a step toward ensuring that both the marine environment and the fishing industry stand a chance of surviving. And perhaps evenings like the one last year, when fish erupted all around me in the surf, may become commonplace along the beaches of the Santa Barbara Channel.