Greg Brecht The idea of protecting areas of the ocean is an old one. For example, tribal peoples in several areas of the world protected resources by banning fishing in some seasons. The need to protect sizable areas of the oceans has become crucial, and the main tool is now setting up Marine Protected Areas (MPAs). Extractive technologies are depleting fishery resources worldwide, damaging coral reefs and estuaries. Industrial fishing is often at odds with the wants and needs of local peoples, such as many Pacific islanders. Locals may end up with damaged fishery resources and damaged or destroyed potential for revenue-producing tourism. The concept is essentially zoning. A good example of the complexities of protecting marine resources is the United States. A number of federal agencies and some states manage areas offering different degrees of protection, and manage them for widely differing purposes. The U.S. National Park Service currently administers some 88 ocean and coastal parks, which include coral reefs, kelp forests, under water glaciers. They preserve 11,000 miles of coast and 2.4 million acres of ocean and Great Lakes waters. These generate $5 billion in revenue for local communities, from an estimated 88 million visits a year. There are a wide variety of existing parks. They include, for example, The War in the Pacific National Historical Park on Guam, which covers 6.3 shoreline miles and 991 acres of marine water area. The various parks preserve battle sites, bring tourist revenue from activities such as diving and fishing. Protecting ecosystems and biodiversity is one of several goals. There are many federal agencies administering MPAs. These include NOAA and in a de facto sense, the military and any sea areas with access restricted by them. U.S. MPAs currently cover some 32% of US marine waters, about 3.9 million square kilometers. Of that impressive area, about 10%, some 395,000 square kilometers, is fully protected as no-take areas. Extending the no-take areas arouses intense opposition because of the widely held assumption that it takes areas out of use, and is inherently anti-free market. In reality, Marine Protected Areas are not closed off to human activity. In a typical design for an MPA, there are a range of zones. A central no-use zone allows no activity. This is bordered by a no-take zone, which does not permit extractive activity such as fishing but does allow activity such as diving and tourism. The no-take zone is bordered by a buffer zone that allows considerable activity, such as hook and line fishing, limited tourism and boating. The next zone is a multi-use zone that allows all tourism, fishing and aquaculture. This is a sensible design that is easily understood. Worldwide, there are approximately 6,500 MPAs, in theory protecting about 5% of the oceans. Realistic assessments reduce that to about 2% which is strongly protected in no-take reserves. Some MPAs are no more than lines on a map, enforced only by declarations of intent. To be meaningful, protected areas must be monitored and policed, with real and meaningful penalties for violating restrictions. There’s plenty of research that indicates the real environmental value of these zones. One careful analysis showed a biomass inside a non-take zone that was 446% of that in areas not protected. Density of organisms was 166% of that in not protected areas. The number of species was higher and the size of individuals was larger. No-take zones improve fisheries in nearby unprotected zones by “spillover,” fish from protected areas moving into fishing areas. There’s a lot that should be given be given protection. Estuaries are nurseries for many species of commercially valuable fish, but they are suffering from pollution and increased use of the areas for boating and recreational activities. Imposing limits on activities is sensible, but contending uses are likely to limit any limits. Coral reefs are unique ecosystems, but are threatened by pollution, damaging fishing practices (such as dredging) and climate change. Divers love reefs and their biodiversity, but some reef areas are being cherished to death by the intensity of use. Many commercially valuable fish species are overfished. The typical pattern is for a resource to be exploited to the point of depletion, then intensifying exploitation of other less-desirable fish and depleting them as well. Increasing the areas of no-use and no-take zones can help species recover and reestablish a fishery. MPAs combined with sensible restrictions on fishing could reestablish valuable fisheries and make them sustainable. We clearly need a large increase in zoned protections for ocean resources. The problem is political and economic, not environmental. The fishing industry vigorously resists regulation. The science is clear on the benefits. Resource economics provides analysis. The obstacle is political.
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