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News and Features
09.26.07

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Photograph by Kip Evans Photography
Line Up Here: Fishing is banned in the Point Sur State Marine Reserve, which runs about five miles south along the coast from Point Sur and extends roughly two miles out to sea. Adjacent to it is the Point Sur Marine Conservation Area, which allows limited fishing.

Cordoning off the Sea

California's Marine Protected Areas represent a new approach to conservation—and a potential boon for scientists.

By Steve Hahn


A seal basked on a rock just off Point Lobos, watching the curious scene above unfold. California Fish and Game Commission president Richard Rogers stood before a microphone, his back to the large underwater kelp forest where the seal would likely find his dinner that night. A strand of algae washed up onto the rocks as a pelican glided low along the water.

Rogers adjusted his microphone. "If you listen closely," he said to the 50 audience members assembled to celebrate a critical turning point in environmental politics, "you can hear the marine life thanking us."

The Sept. 20 event celebrated the implementation of the first network of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) in the nation and one of the first in the world. Located off the Central Coast from San Mateo County's Pigeon Point to Point Conception in Santa Barbara County, the new MPAs include 14 state conservation areas allowing limited fishing of specific species, two marine parks with only recreational fishing allowed and 13 marine reserves with no fishing allowed at all. Overall, 18 percent of Central Coast waters extending three miles offshore are protected under the new regulations. The species expected to benefit include halibut, salmon, red snapper, sea otters, flounders, lingcod and hundreds more.

This historic moment did not come easily. It is the result of years of tense negotiations, extensive planning and detailed scientific review. The process began in 1999, when California passed the Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) into law. The MLPA directed the Department of Fish and Game (DFG) to approach the task of fisheries management from a whole new perspective.

Historically, fishing regulations restricted how many of a particular species of fish could be taken from the water during a season. Some regulations also restricted the size of fish one was allowed to take in order to protect breeders within the species. In severe cases of fishery depletion, large areas of state waters would be cordoned off as "conservation zones" where fishing for a particular threatened species was banned.

These regulations had shown progress in replenishing some fish populations, most notably rockfish, a category that includes popular species such as the striped bass and red snapper. But conservationist legislators in Sacramento, including MLPA co-sponsor and former Assemblyman Fred Keeley, thought a more thorough system needed to be implemented. They worried that the species-specific management approach the DFG was using overlooked the role habitat, other sea life and migratory patterns played in determining the abundance of fish populations. If the government could protect entire ecosystems from human disturbance, the thinking went, fish populations would rebound at a quicker rate.

Kaitilin Gaffney, who represented the Ocean Conservancy during the Central Coast MLPA process, notes this was an important departure from a system that generally "waited for disaster to strike" before implementing regulations.

"The old system also missed the interactions between different species," says Gaffney. "MPAs are one way to try to do a better job in what is termed 'ecosystem protection.' It's not a substitute for traditional fisheries management, but it's one additional tool in the toolbox."

Additionally, the new system would create a "backbone" of protected areas encompassing fertile and healthy breeding grounds, where fish populations could regenerate faster and then spread the new population boom out to unprotected and overfished areas.

The paradigm shift ushered in by the MLPA was music to the ears of conservationist activists, but getting these ideas off paper and into the water was a much more difficult task. In fact, the process sat idle for nearly five years, bogged down by a depleted state budget and DFG staff shortage.

In 2004, as Gov. Schwarzenegger was readying his administration for an unprecedented reworking of the state's environmental regulations, the process was restarted and the Central Coast was selected as a pilot area. Scientists, policy advisers, government bureaucrats, commercial and recreational fishers, scuba divers and anyone else with a stake in the future of the ocean were called together to hammer out the specifics of the ambitious goals laid down in the MLPA.

Fissures among the different interest groups were quickly laid bare. Fishing industry representatives were severely disappointed that the MLPA process didn't take into account the role coastal development, destruction of habitat in watersheds and runoff pollution had in depleting fish populations. They felt like they were carrying the cross for the sins of the entire state, while development firms, agricultural interests and polluting industries were let off the hook.

Of course, the Schwarzenegger administration was also championing environmental causes that would impact land-based industries, including the signing of a bill to reduce atmosphere-warming carbon emissions 25 percent by 2020 (opening developers up for crippling lawsuits), and another that raised penalties for illegal discharging of pollutants.

MLPA negotiations lasted for approximately two years, and concessions were made to allow limited fishing in some areas and to keep fishing grounds closer to port open.

Finally, in March 2006, when the negotiations had wound down and the science advisory team had wrapped up its research, three options remained on the table. One was designed by fishing interests, another by conservationists, and a third plan combined elements of the first two. The Blue Ribbon Task Force recommended the hybrid plan, and, after some minor modifications, the Fish and Game Commission voted to implement that plan in April 2007.

With 204 square miles of state waters now protected in an extensive system of "offshore wilderness parks," and protection slated for four more regions along the rest of the state's coast by 2011, it was clear to all involved that a vital shift had occurred in the way California's humans dealt with their seaside neighbors. Most involved in the process, whether supportive or antagonistic, anticipate the new mind-set will spread quickly across the nation's coastal states.

The Final Frontier
This new set of MPAs represents not only a new approach to fishery management but a unique opportunity for marine biologists to study the effects of human activity on a diverse array of marine ecosystems. While scientists have studied the waters off California's shore for decades, there has never been a set of untarnished ecosystems that can serve as controls for testing hypotheses related to how fishing impacts the complex web of mineral, plant and animal life beneath the waves.

Mark Carr, a prominent associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at UCSC, is eager to get in the water and use the MPAs to test a number of questions he and others in the field have been pondering for years.

"Everybody talks about this stuff, but we haven't had a tool for actually testing it," he says. "That's what's exciting about these MPAs. We'll finally be able to scientifically and rigorously test whether and to what extent fishing has an impact on different components of the ecosystem."

By observing differences between fish populations inside and outside the no-take reserves, Carr hopes to isolate the effects of fishing on a given ecosystem. This can lead to a more thorough understanding of the relationship between humans and marine life, the lack of which became an argument fishing industry representatives used in claiming MPAs were based on "questionable science." While Carr believes the MLPA process was actually heavily influenced by good science, he admits there are still a lot of unanswered questions, many of which could take at least five years to even begin to answer.

First, there is the obvious question of how much bigger individual fish, especially egg-laying females, grow, and how many more fish result from these robust breeders being protected within the MPAs. Gaffney says studies have shown that certain species of rockfish can have between 50 to 200 times as many eggs when they grow just a few feet larger.

"It's a scientific theory referred to as the 'big old fat female fish,'" she says. "If you can keep some of these breeder stock protected, that can potentially have a benefit for areas outside the MPAs."

If fish populations become more robust and individual fish larger within the MPAs, as is anticipated, a new set of scientific questions are raised. Factors such as climate change, cyclical weather patterns, the resilience of a fish species to pollution and trans-species interactions can be studied with the factor of fishing already controlled. While it is very hard to completely isolate any of these factors, the MPAs are a step in the right direction for researchers like Carr.

As an example, he cites the planned revitalization of the underwater habitat he specializes in, kelp forests. Fishery managers want to increase the numbers of the 10 or so different species of fish that live in kelp forests to 40 percent of their historic numbers. (The current population is around 25 percent, an increase from the low of about 10 percent that accompanied the over fishing of the late 20th century.) This may be great for the fish, but Carr is more interested with the fate of the rest of the food chain after the predators rebound to a better percentage of their formerly glorious numbers.

"So, maybe you get more rockfish, but if they're eating other guys, we project declines in other species, so we want to see if these changes occur," he says. "Not everybody is going to benefit from the presence of these big old rockfish, but the argument is: that's the natural state of the ecosystem. So, what is that state, and how does it compare with what we have now? We're trying to look at how the whole system may change over time in addition to just how individual species are responding."

As the results from these new experiments trickle in over the next few decades, the regulatory framework managing these ecosystems can be further tweaked to accommodate the new data. This may help settle the debate over the legitimacy of the science used to implement the MPAs in the first place.

"If you see impacts within and outside the MPAs, then maybe you know it isn't fishing causing that problem," says Gaffney, "Then you look for a different cause."

Celebrate Diversity
The Central Coast MPA network was not established solely to further the knowledge base of science, of course. The intent behind the reserves and conservation areas was to protect threatened species and ecosystems, and more importantly, to protect many different types of species and ecosystems. While this means more fodder for scientific experiments, the real benefits will accrue to the ocean ecosystem as a whole, at least up to the state water boundary of three miles offshore, and all the living things that either call it home or pass through for a snack.

Since different species have adapted to the unique habitats and food sources they have interacted with for centuries, significant changes to that habitat can threaten the viability of a number of rare species. This is why environmentalists are always harping on the dangers of eliminating biodiversity; take out even one vital piece of the food chain and the whole house of cards could come down because species generally adapt, and breed, over long periods of time.

Of course, this Jengalike theory isn't an absolute truth. Life often finds new ways to thrive in the most destabilized of habitats. That's part of what scientists want to investigate too.

"One of the goals is to protect all the different kinds of marine ecosystems that occur along the coastline and to protect the overall biodiversity," says Carr, who was part of the MLPA science advisory team. "The way you collectively protect all biodiversity is to make sure you protect all the different kinds of habitats, since different habitats support different kinds of species. So we identified the kinds of habitats to protect, like kelp forests, deep rocky reefs, and estuaries."

The MPAs were also designed to protect breeding grounds and be located near state parks, where runoff pollution was not a significant problem and onshore rangers could help with enforcement.

Several of the unique habitats selected for protection are located off the coast of Santa Cruz County. The Aņo Nuevo Conservation Area was established to protect kelp forest, estuary, and rocky intertidal habitats. Numerous rockfish species and over 300 invertebrate species call this area home, and many different seabirds and marine mammals, including the elephant seal, use the area as a breeding ground (see p. TK). The area was also selected for protection due to its proximity to the existing Greyhound Rock Conservation Area and Big Basin State Park. The protected area spans over 22 square miles and allows recreational fishing. Pacific halibut, Dungeness crab and lingcod are among the marine species protected in this area.

Farther south, the Natural Bridges Reserve hugs the coast from Natural Bridges up to Wilder State Park, extending out a mere 21 feet for a total restricted area of just over a half square mile. This area was selected to protect inhabitants of the rock cliffs, sandy beaches and salt marsh close to the coast. Protected species include mostly invertebrates and algae. The reserve would have extended farther into the sea, but fishing groups wanted the waters left open due to the area's proximity to the Santa Cruz harbor. Commercial fishermen often find schools of yellowtails, lingcod and rock bass attracted to the rich food sources within the rocky reef just off Natural Bridge's shore.

One of the most important habitats for researchers to preserve was the 34-square-mile Soquel Submarine Canyon, located in the middle of the Monterey Bay off the coast of Watsonville, because it is, according to Carr, one of the most spectacular and rich submarine canyons on the West Coast. The canyon is home to many deepwater fish species threatened elsewhere, and has one of the densest collections of fish and seabirds thanks to the high nutrient content of its waters. Migrating whales and threatened species of rockfish often feed in the canyon, which is also home to a great deal of deepwater coral and sponge species. While protecting this area is seen as a key to regenerating the rockfish populations and maintaining the bay's biodiversity, socioeconomic considerations caused regulators to allow commercial salmon, mackerel, and sardine fishing to take place in this area.

The Elkhorn Slough reserve will be expanded to two square miles in order to protect more of the nearly 700 bird, fish, invertebrate and plant species living in the area. A conservation zone where recreational fishing will be allowed borders the reserve, which is a no-take zone.

Solution in Search of A Problem?
While the Ocean Conservancy reports that 95 percent of the comments received during the MLPA public hearing process were supportive of establishing MPAs, not everyone is happy with the end result. Vern Goehring, manager of the California Fishing Coalition, thinks the Central Coast MLPA process was misguided and may actually exacerbate the problem of over fishing.

First off, Goehring notes that the coast off California is already much better protected than other areas around the nation and world, He cites a report issued by the Fish and Wildlife Service last spring that identified many overfished areas off the nation's coast but none in California.

He also cites numerous studies showing rockfish populations are rebounding after rockfish conservation areas were established in 2004. Associate professor Carr confirmed that this was in fact true, with rockfish populations increasing from a dip below 10 percent of their historic populations to a current rate of approximately 25 percent of historic numbers.

Additionally, says Goehring, restricting fishing in these areas will not actually reduce the number of vessels competing for a catch; it will just compact them into fewer areas. What's more, it will move them to areas that generally have less robust fish populations since many unique and productive habitats were targeted for protection to create a solid base for resurging populations. This means the remaining fishing grounds will be even more heavily impacted.

So while conservationists are quick to note that over 80 percent of the coast is open to fishing, Goehring estimates only 60 percent of fish populations will actually be available for commercial fishing fleets. The tragedy of the commons will be tragic indeed under these circumstances, warns Goehring.

"The public is not going to tolerate having no-take reserves abundant in fish population and fish life, and every place else overfished. It doesn't make sense to have that situation, so what will likely happen is there will be increased regulations in the other areas following," predicts Goehring. "It's starting a cyclical problem, a spiraling up of regulations and controls, which are not being understood adequately in a rush forward to create this thing that superficially sounds good, but scientifically is really questionable."

The Short Arm of the Law
Commercial fishermen are not the only ones expressing nervous reservations as the Central Coast MLPA process completes its implementation phase. The DFG, while obviously supporting the preserves, is without 45 of the warden positions it needs to reach full staffing levels and actually enforce the new rules. Nine warden positions were recently green lighted by the governor to help patrol the new MPAs, but their training will take nearly a year.

Meanwhile, the Sacramento Bee reports that DFG wardens have to patrol state and federal waters, meaning they are responsible for waters extending out 200 miles up and down the coast, not just the three miles off the coast that constitute state waters.

"We have the entire state to cover so it's a juggling act, and not just with the marine waters," says Steve Martarano, supervising communications officer for the DFG.

"Theoretically, if those 45 positions were filled, that would solve a lot of problems but it probably still wouldn't be enough to cover the state the way we'd want to."

Law enforcement personnel, in demand throughout much of the state, are usually attracted to the fatter compensation packages offered by other agencies such as the California Highway Patrol. The CHP offers 25 percent more for entry-level officers than the DFG's $43,000 per year.

While the staffing shortage may seem to blow the doors wide open for unrestricted poaching, especially in the conservation areas where recreational and limited commercial fishing is still allowed, Gaffney predicts the compliance level will be fairly high. As evidence she points to the Channel Islands MPAs off the coast of Santa Barbara, where the compliance rate over the last two years has been 95 percent. She also said that policy advisers recommended to the Blue Ribbon Task Force that the preserves be located near state parks, where onshore rangers could spot at least some of the poaching activity.

"Once the word got out and people understood where the areas were, most people follow the rules," says Gaffney of the Channel Island MPAs. "You still have to have wardens out on boats, but we tried to be smart. It's going to take all the state agencies and feds working together to do a good job of protecting these areas."

The Power of Democracy
As the long and sometimes contentious process of implementing MPAs leaves the shores of Santa Cruz and drifts into the waters off of the north Central Coast, Fred Keeley is confident the collaborative nature of the democratic process will come through yet again.

"Although not everyone is happy with the details of the MLPA, I think the work towards achieving implementation has been one of those positive moments in governance where the electorate, the elected, and the stakeholders have stuck with it," says Keeley, sounding humble but dignified. "It's a much better product for the participation of those hundreds of people no matter what position they hold on it. Those are the folks I'm proud of."


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