Crossing a Line in Marine Conservation

by Nancy Baron
Spring 2006 Catalog

"The rich kelp forests of California once harbored giant sea bass and lobsters the size of men's thighs. Any line dropped to the bottom was sure to haul up a tasty lunker. But catches today in California are less than half of what they were only 20 years ago. And worldwide, scientists report that over 90 percent of the big fish are gone."

In the late 19th century, hundreds of humpbacks lolled at the mouth of the Fraser River and gamboled inside Vancouver Harbor, feasting on tiny fishes.

During migration, the waters between Vancouver Island and the mainland were so thick with whales that ships had to be vigilant to avoid a bow-splintering collision. Sturgeon weighing several hundred pounds lurked in the Fraser's silty waters. Halibut and lingcod were monsters. In spring, the herring came with a roar as millions flipped at the surface and turned the waters black with their wriggling bodies. In fall, the rivers ran red with salmon. As Tor Miller, an old-timer who fished the area in 1935, told me, "Cripes, almighty, there was everything then ... but you can't catch a breath out there now."

When I worked as the education director at the Vancouver Aquarium, I feared that all that would remain one day of the marine life I loved would be on display in acrylic exhibits like ours. So I joined a small group of scientists, NGOs, divers and far-sighted fishermen, who wanted to see places for marine life to thrive and reproduce in fully protected marine reserves. We fought hard, and in 1993 Canada's first "no take" marine protected area (MPA) was established at Whytecliff Park, a tiny dive spot on the rocky shores of West Vancouver. Yet despite Canada's Oceans Act, bold promises and endless debates, the federal government has failed to implement its strategies to protect marine diversity and establish a national network of MPAs. Only one additional MPA has been added on Canada's west coast since 1993 - a hydrothermal vent.

The story of Vancouver's plummeting marine life is repeated with depressing similarity in U.S. waters and around much of the world. Most people believe that 20 percent of the oceans are already protected in marine sanctuaries. They are shocked to learn the truth: Less than 1 percent of the oceans are off-limits to commercial and recreational fishing, which, along with habitat destruction and pollution, have emptied the oceans of life.

There is no ocean counterpart to our system of national parks in the U.S. and Canada. Marine sanctuaries sound safe, but in almost all of them, fishing and the collection of wildlife is allowed. Canada's marine parks are mostly places to park your boat. And while there are roughly 100 MPAs scattered along California's coast, they protect less than 0.3 percent of coastal waters.

It's been more than a century since we realized that commercial hunting on land is not sustainable, but we continue hunting the oceans, even though what remains today is but a shadow of the past. The rich kelp forests of California once harbored giant sea bass and lobsters the size of men's thighs. Any line dropped to the bottom was sure to haul up a tasty lunker. But catches today in California are less than half of what they were only 20 years ago. And worldwide, scientists report that over 90 percent of the big fish are gone.

Until recently, marine animals had places to hide because they were too deep, too remote, too dangerous to fish - and there were far fewer fishermen. New technologies have peeled the lid off the oceans. Military technologies originally developed for submarine warfare and espionage during the cold war are now deployed to find fish. Sonar mapping systems reveal every crack and contour of the seabed in exquisite detail. Guided by satellite navigation systems, fishermen can set hooks on formerly uncharted seamounts and move rocks weighing up to 16 tons. Spotter planes help pursue schools to the last fish. GPS units make it possible for recreational fishers to return time and time again to that one reef where they had good luck. The latest bad news is that governments are now spending millions on GIS surveys to map out the remaining essential fish habitat so fishermen can go straight to the last over-looked hot spots.

This is why we need "no take" marine protected areas, commonly called marine reserves. Setting aside swathes of the sea is like stashing part of your paycheck in a 401k. It makes sense to have an investment strategy for the future in which the benefits compound over time. In the fish world, the largest, oldest females produce the highest returns. Not only do the big mothers produce more eggs, their eggs and larvae survive better. In Whytecliff's protected waters I saw watermelon-sized lingcod egg masses which meant the females that laid them must have survived at least five years. This is a rarity. Outside the reserve most female lingcod aren't living long enough to reproduce even once.

In addition, areas of abundance are beautiful. And they are benchmarks, showing what was and what could be again -- if we give the ocean a chance. Reserves provide insurance against heavy fishing pressure, a changing climate and errors in stock assessments.

We have only a few examples of "no take" marine protected areas. Ironically, because there are still so few reserves, much of what we know comes from de facto reserves around high-security areas, military operations, prisons and nuclear reactors. One such example is Cape Canaveral, Florida. In 1962, 15 square miles of waters surrounding the cape were restricted for security reasons. A study published in Science magazine has shown that not only are there more than twice as many game fish within the Cape Canaveral reserve compared to outside of it, but fish such as black drum (which can live 70 years), keep growing bigger and are spilling over into surrounding areas, where sport fishing now thrives. Savvy recreational fishermen nose their boats right up to the line of the forbidden zone and motor away with world record-size catches of red drum, black drum and spotted sea trout.

Still, because so few reserves exist, it's difficult to prove their effectiveness. Progress in setting aside "no take" marine reserves, especially in the U.S. and Canada, has been slower than a sea star. But finally, there is some cause for hope. For a long time, New Zealand and the Philippines were the leaders in establishing reserves. In 2005, other countries are starting to move. Recently, one-third of Australia's Great Barrier Reef was zoned "no take," creating the world's largest network of marine protected areas.

Hawaii's state officials recently banned fishing around the small islands and atolls of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, some of the most pristine waters in the U.S. and home to endangered Hawaiian monk seals and sea turtles. Only native Hawaiian cultural practices will be allowed.

In California, scientists and managers are trying to connect scattered reserves and establish the largest network in the U.S. at a scale that will have significant results. The plan extends into deeper waters and different habitats, because many fish may begin life in a kelp forest, then move out as they turn to larvae and gradually transform into their adult form. To account for the movements of fish and their larvae, which are spread by currents, scientists say that the reserves should be 10 to 20 kilometers across, spaced about 50 to 100 kilometers apart, and should include representative marine habitats and all that they support. It remains to be seen if state and federal officials will finally approve these recommendations.

Because of the tradition of open access, resistance to "no take" areas is fierce. Fishers, faced with declining catches and increasing regulation, are naturally reluctant to lose territory. Yet in countries where reserves are now in place, fishers see the benefits and help enforce the "no take" rules.

British Columbia's Whytecliff Park remains not much more than a symbol, but it is a home for some big mommas and an oasis in a sea of depletion. On California's coast, a reserve network could be the pride of the nation. And while reserves are not a panacea for all that ails the oceans, they are a powerful tool for recovery that we've not yet given a chance. Marine reserves are the window into the past that could again be our future.

About the Author

Nancy Baron, a zoologist and science writer, now works for SeaWeb and the Communication Partnership for Science and the Sea (COMPASS) helping marine scientists communicate their work. She has written numerous award-winning magazine articles and authored the field guide Birds of the Pacific Northwest Coast. Based in Santa Barbara, she also spends as much time as possible in her home waters of British Columbia. To find more works by Nancy Baron visit Powells.com.