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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.