Dive Dry with Dr. Bill

#305: SoCal and Catalina MPA's, Part II

Last week I wrote about the Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) passed in 1999 to designate a network of marine protected (MPA's) areas across the state of "Caleefornyia" (or however the Governator spells it). Why designate these marine reserves and other protected areas? If you want to find out, just read my 719 page doctoral dissertation... if you can stay awake that long! It is one of the issues I tackled in that massive tome, often used as a door stop by my professors. Many of the current marine reserves around Catalina Island have been designated due to the recreational value (Lover's Cove), educational value (Blue Cavern Point and Toyon Bay) or to protect individual species (the purple hydrocoral at Farnsworth Bank). Few have been established based strictly on ecological and scientific principles. This new state-wide network is to be based on these criteria, with additional considerations including economic issues and other stakeholders such as commercial and recreational anglers.

Those of you who read my columns regularly may remember that in 1913 the State legislature declared the entire island a marine protected area out to the 3-mile limit, referring to it as the "Santa Catalina Island Fish Reserve." This legislation was due in large to the efforts of Tuna Club and Pasadena Rose Parade co-founder Dr. Charles Frederick Holder, a well known angler and conservationist who spent much time on Catalina in the late 1800's and early 1900's. I believe this was the very first marine protected area in our State. It prohibited all commercial fishing with nets within three miles of the island. This is very similar to the banning of commercial gill nets in State waters in 1993 which has undoubtedly helped promote the recovery of species like our giant sea bass. Unfortunately the 1913 legislation was overturned due to political pressure (lobbying) from commercial fishing interests in that era.

Obviously concerns regarding the effect of intensive commercial, and to a lesser extent sport fishing were already known more than 100 years ago. I have listened with great interest to the stories of our older anglers who talk about the incredible richness of fish stocks here back in the 1920's and 30's. These individuals have personal histories with our waters far longer than our younger anglers and divers, or me. They refer to "baselines" which date back many decades, to times when fishing pressure was already present, but not as intense as it would become following World War II when many returning veterans settled in our State and the population began its rapid increase.

Baselines are very important in judging the health of fish stocks, and ecosystems in general. For example, I know of many new divers who have never seen an abalone. I have had a number of them return from a dive with a description of something that looked "like an upside-down dinner plate." They were shocked to find out it was actually an abalone, usually a green, they had seen and that it was a snail. Many of us SCUBA GOD's (Grumpy Old Divers) remember the days when abalone were stacked on top of one another, and we could watch them grow for years before we harvested them. These two groups have baselines that differ by only a few decades, yet present markedly different perspectives on abalone stocks.

Likewise, younger anglers today may believe current fish stocks are healthy because their baseline is fairly recent. To determine whether a fish species is healthy, we need to look at where it stood from the perspective of a reasonable baseline, perhaps that of the 1890's or 1920's or late 1940's. Baselines serve as measures against which to judge the health of fish or invertebrate stocks... as well as ecosystems. It would be grossly inappropriate to measure the health of a fish population by the densities observed today.

If we are to return our marine ecosystems to reasonable health, it will be necessary to establish MPA's based on the best ecological data available. Of course the only way to return our entire coastline to such a state would be to declare it all a reserve, and eliminate all the toxic effects from coastal runoff and other sources of pollutants and habitat alteration. Even a staunch conservationist and ecologist like myself realizes this is not realistic. I drive a car (and a golf cart), I take the Catalina Express over to the ports of San Pedro and Long Beach which have been massively altered over time, I drive mainland freeways... in short, I am complicit in supporting the very things that have rendered our coast less hospitable to many critters

The MLPA process takes a much more reasonable approach in defining marine reserves. Past decisions in northern and central California have resulted in the creation of networks of protected areas amounting to about 20% of the available area. This is a substantial trade-off. If it were up to me, I'd follow King Solomon's example and just take my sword and divide the coast into 50% protected areas and 50% take. Of course that's why no one has suggested I run for governor... or city council or even dog catcher for that matter. I'm just too... ahem... "reasonable!"

Why not focus on conservation efforts like those employed for other fish stocks like the white sea bass or the snail darter, which, when discovered in the Little Tennessee River, prompted the creation of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 1973? Because it is necessary to ensure that entire ecosystems are healthy, not just individual species. One must ensure that proper food, habitat and breeding areas all exist if a species is to survive and multiply. White sea bass cannot recover and become healthy without ample populations of the baitfish and squid that they feed on. They require shallow embayments as one of their necessary habitats, and therefore can be easily affected by coastal development. Wise conservation programs incorporate all these ecological factors when devising recovery plans, and in designating reserve areas.

Since it is a political year, I'll use an analogy from former candidate Senator Hillary Clinton. Yes, I know some of my readers raise hackles at the mere mention of her name, but the concept stressed in her book based on the old African proverb It Takes A Village to Raise a Child is very valid. I was raised in one such neighborhood, the Village of Northbrook outside Chicago. At the time it was indeed a village like the one Sen. Clinton suggests and not entirely unlike Avalon. Oh, and since I'm already treading on rough waters, as an ecologist I find it impossible to accept the candidacy of Gov. Sarah Palin who shoots wolves from helicopters... and what's with those winks at the audience? After all, she is a married woman!

As a marine ecologist, I'll paraphrase the proverb to read "it takes an ecosystem to support a whale" (or whatever species you wish to insert). The series of marine reserves mandated under the MLPA are designed to ensure that not only individual ecosystems survive, but that there is an inter-connected network of them critical to ensuring long-term survival in the face of natural and man-made catastrophes.

Back in 1971 I was asked to get involved in a small way when Philip and Helen Wrigley, and Philip's sister Dorothy Offield, were considering the establishment of much of Catalina as a nature preserve. Individuals more intimately involved in the process included Malcolm Renton, Doug Propst and Dr. Bob Given. One of the things I really liked about the philosophy I saw emerge from that process, and be integrated into the founding documents, was that of preserving not just native species, but also ecological communities. In that respect I felt the young Conservancy, founded in 1972, was well ahead in its thinking compared to the Endangered Species Act which emerged a year later.

I wish more people understood the wisdom of the Conservancy's formation. We all have the Wrigley and Offield families to thank for the fact that our island's interior isn't a mosaic of expensive and exclusive homes dotting the landscape, but a reserve that all can enjoy. Likewise a series of marine reserves can be something all of us will benefit from. Snorkelers and divers will have areas where the populations of marine species are healthy. Anglers will have source areas from which non-protected regions can be replenished with fish larvae and adults spilling over from these reserves. That way our sons and daughters, as well as our grandchildren and their grandchildren, will be able to continue to enjoy their preferred activities decades into the future. I can only wonder what our waters would look like now had the 1913 Catalina reserve not been overturned.

© 2008 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 and on Charter Communications Cable channel 33 at 7:30 PM on Tuesdays in the Riverside/Norco area. Please help me climb out of self-imposed poverty... buy my DVD's (see this link). Yes, take Dr. Bill home with you... we'll both be glad you did!

The 1913 "Santa Catalina Island Fish Reserve" established largely at the urging
of the Tuna Club's Dr. Charles F. Holder.

This document maintained by Dr. Bill Bushing.
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