Wilderness areas for the ocean

  • A nesting lingcod

  • NOAA

Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story, "Mending the Nets."

In the absence of good science about how much fishing a healthy ocean can handle, some fishermen and many environmentalists say a cautious approach is best. They want to place specific swaths of the sea off-limits to fishermen. These "no-take marine reserves" function like wilderness areas for fish, allowing them to spawn and rebuild their populations. Already implemented in approximately 20 countries around the world, in the Gulf of Mexico and in a few state-run projects in the United States, these marine reserves average twice as many fish overall as exploited ones, and three times as many spawning adult fish, according to a 2001 Natural Resources Defense Council report.

There are already about two dozen no-take reserves scattered off the coasts of California and Washington. But proponents would like to see a network of protected areas that span the coasts, allowing endangered fish to travel from spawning to rearing grounds. Last June, the nonpartisan Pew Ocean Commission recommended creating federal marine reserves. President Bush has created a marine protected-areas advisory committee to formulate national policy recommendations to the Departments of Interior and Commerce. And in late January, a federal ocean investigation will make policy recommendations about how to protect our oceans.

But for many fishermen, "reserve" will always be a dirty word. "I don’t believe those will do anything to help us grow more fish. Show me the science," says Port Orford fisherman Tom Dahl, as, kept on land by the wind, he drinks a beer on a quiet Port Orford sidewalk. "The biologists have their heads up their ass," he says. "They can try and bring those here, but we’ll put up a fight."

It won’t be easy to keep fishermen out of certain waters: The U.S. controls a marine expanse along the Pacific Coast larger than the Interior West, and enforcement is limited to the Coast Guard and to a small federal-observer program, in which federal biologists accompany fishermen on their boats. That’s why some environmental groups say the cooperation of the fishing community is key.

"Fishermen are out there on the water under incredible economic pressure to take as much fish as possible," says Rod Fujita, a marine ecologist with Environmental Defense in Oakland, Calif. "Enforcement is extremely weak. We need buy-in from the fishing community or marine reserves won’t be effective."

Some observers say it’s high time the ocean got the same level of protection as the forests. "It’s just like the local logging communities that opposed the hell out of wilderness and national parks when they were first proposed," says Andy Kerr of the Oregon Natural Resources Council. "The world did not end as they feared, and now they’re better off for it. The same thing will happen with coastal communities and marine reserves."

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