Dive Dry with Dr. Bill

039: Marine Life Protection Act and MPA's

Marine Protected Areas (MPA's) are a subject of controversy these days in California following the 1999 passage of the Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA). This legislation acknowledged that prior management practices by the California Dept. of Fish & Game (CDFG), based largely on catch restrictions for individual species, were not working. The MLPA requires that scientific research be used to improve existing MPA's and create a more effective network of them in State waters.

The intent is to protect not just individual species, but the habitats and ecosystems they rely on ecologically. Such an approach is far more enlightened than trying to protect a system species-by-species. One of the reasons I have supported the Catalina Conservancy is that in its 1972 Articles of Incorporation the "primary mission" was defined as "to preserve native plants and animals, [and] biotic communities..." Those instrumental in the Conservancy's creation were thinking in terms of preserving entire native ecosystems, not just individual species. The Endangered Species Act (ESA) passed about 18 months later in December of 1973, was not as enlightened. The MLPA involves a shift from the single species to the ecosystem level approach to conservation in the marine environment.

Is this shift in thinking really new? No. How many of you are aware that in 1913 the State passed legislation creating the Santa Catalina Island Fish Reserve? This was the effort largely of Dr. Charles F. Holder, co-founder of the Tuna Club in Avalon... and the Tournament of Roses in Pasadena. Based on written historical records, fish populations in Catalina waters were astounding in the late 1800's. It is reported that a local minister ended his sermon early so he and the other fishers in the congregation could run out and catch a large school of yellowtail in Avalon Bay.

By 1913 the abundance of fish had declined quite noticeably. In addition, abalone which had been 4-5 deep in the 1890's were gone, at least from shallow depths in this pre-SCUBA era. The lobster fishery around Catalina was no longer profitable. Commercial fishing interests, armed with then-modern technologies in boat and net design, were considered responsible for most of the decline. The new Catalina Island Fish Reserve therefore prohibited all commercial catch using nets within three miles of the entire island. However, commercial and recreational fishing with hook-and-line was still permitted. Catalina was 100% protected from commercial net fishing... for a brief time. Commercial fisherman soon succeeded in overturning the legislation and the Catalina Fish Reserve ceased to exist. Other California reserves established in 1909 and 1913 were also repealed.

Marine reserves resurfaced following legislation in 1950, and a total of 53 were created throughout the State. The criteria used to select them was not based on the best ecological knowledge. In fact, the science of marine reserves was not really established until recent decades. Some of the underlying theory originated from one of my favorite Harvard professors, Dr. E. O. Wilson, and his colleague Robert MacArthur in their 1967 publication "On the Theory of Island Biogeography." As this theory was tested, and new ideas emerged from the work of many researchers, scientific understanding of the best ways to create protected areas on land and in the ocean increased substantially.

The current MLPA has a number of defined goals. One is to use this improved scientific understanding of marine reserve design and conservation to optimize the protection of habitats, ecosystems and biodiversity within the State's oceans. Any new MPA's established should include options for education and research, especially that needed to established scientific baseline data on what healthy ecosystems are. Decades (and centuries) of fishing in the State's waters have seriously affected our ability to establish such pre-impact conditions and thereby compare fished areas with "pristine" areas. Such reference information from relatively undisturbed areas is critical for proper manangement. And, of course, these reserves are specifically designed to replenish fish stocks and healthy ecosystems for future generations to enjoy.

Some fishing enthusiasts argue there is no proof that marine reserves actually work. I suggest this is because few of them have read the extensive scientific studies about them (perhaps because some of our scientists make pretty boring writers). "No take" marine reserves have been established throughout the world, some functioning for many decades. Scientists reviewed more than 80 case studies involving the effectiveness of these reserves and found substantial evidence they do work. More than half of these studies were in temperate marine environments like those in our region.

There are several types of MPA's that can be created under the MLPA. A Marine Reserve prohibits all take of marine life, whether commercial or recreational, and is therefore a "no take" zone. Marine Parks prohibit commercial fishing but allow recreational fishing with some restrictions specific to each site. Marine Conservation Areas prohibit specific commercial or recreational take while allowing other types.

The first new MPA's established in October, 2002, under the MLPA include 12 around the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary which includes the four northern islands (San Miguel, Santa Rosa, Santa Cruz and Anacapa) as well as Santa Barbara Island (see map above). Ten of these are "no take." They, along with nine previously existing reserves, afford protection to only 3.5% of our State's nearshore marine environment. Most scientists believe 20-30% needs to be set aside to afford the optimal protection of our "resources."

A number of recreational fishers agree that commercial interests should be restricted (many for their own benefit). According to a report cited by the SoCal Recreational Fishing Association 2,443,784 anglers fished in California waters on 2001 for a total of 27,663,000 fishing days. Imagine the number of fish taken. According to Deborah McASrdle of CA Sea Grant, for some fish species their landings far exceed those of the commercial interests.

I don't believe anyone who knows me has ever accused me of being afraid to take a controversial position on conservation issues. I firmly believe such reserves are necessary to ensure well-functioning natural ecosystems AND the availability of fish for future generations to enjoy, or catch. While I oppose fishing (and hunting) for "sport," I have no problem with those who do so for food and follow legal restrictions. I have no sympathy for those fishers who claim their rights are being denied if less than 100% of the ocean is open to them. As a "no take" SCUBA diver since about 1975 and a marine ecologist, their assumption denies me and others our "right" to a part of the ocean that is protected and suitable for education and research activities. Since we are looking for protection for only 20-30% of State waters, this leaves 70-80% for fishing and other extractive uses. I have to ask, just who is being unreasonable? Maybe we should leave it to the wisdom of Solomon and divide California waters 50-50?

© 2003 Dr. Bill Bushing. Watch the "Dive Dry with Dr. Bill" underwater videos on Catalina Cable TV channel 49, 10:00 AM and 5:00 PM weekdays.

Image caption: Map of newly-created Marine Protected Areas in the
Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary

This document maintained by Dr. Bill Bushing.
Material © 2003 Star Thrower Educational Multimedia