California’s experiment to boost fisheries shows early signs of success

March 14, 2013

In the last ten years, the state of California launched a big experiment by creating marine protected areas up and down the coast that give ocean creatures a chance to feed, breed and thrive.  Like national parks on land, these so-called “underwater parks” are meant to give marine life a break, so that threatened populations have a chance to recover. The Marine Life Protection Act that led to these parks also required that they be monitored, creating a baseline so resource managers know how the protections were working, and gain sorely needed information about the health of marine systems.

Recently in Monterey, hundreds of resource managers, policy makers, stakeholders, scientists and conservationists gathered to share what they’ve learned after monitoring central coast underwater parks for five years. Resource Media–which has helped raise awareness and boost public participation in this ocean protection effort for nearly a decade–handled media outreach for the State of the Central Coast Symposium. Here are key takeaways, as reported by the press:

1.    New research shows that the marine reserves are working

The Associated Press story noted that “A five-year scientific assessment of California’s first marine protection zones established off the Central Coast has found that some struggling fish species are showing early signs of recovery, officials said on Thursday.”

The San Jose Mercury News wrote, “In the first major study of its kind, scientists have found that populations and sizes of several key species of fish, along with starfish, urchins, crabs and other sea life, have increased more in the protected areas established in 2007 between San Mateo and Santa Barbara counties than in unprotected ocean areas nearby.”

Researchers cautioned that years of additional study are needed. But overall, they said, the trends are encouraging–a key finding because California’s marine protected area system is being closely watched by other states and countries as a possible solution to improving the health of the world’s oceans.

“You are no longer taking the biggest individuals out of the population,” researcher Mark Carr told the Mercury News. “However, a lot of the species that are being fished grow slowly, so the changes take a while to detect.”

2. State agency leaders are strongly behind the effort.

Without the backing of top policymakers, California’s marine experiment would never have been possible. That support was evident in Monterey. California Secretary for Natural Resources John Laird spoke passionately about the role California is playing as a national leader in marine protection. “We hope we don’t just make success here, but that other people across the nation and the world (will follow suit),” Laird told the AP in a webcast from the event.

Chuck Bonham, the Director of California Department of Fish and Wildlife closed the symposium by saying that California has created “an MPA network that rivals none other in the world.”

3. Public involvement is essential to success

Involving people from all walks of life is necessary to learn about the health of underwater parks, speakers said. Peter Nelson, executive director of Collaborative Fisheries Research West, said that partnering with fishermen to assess fisheries health and manage marine protected areas is essential to continued success.

In the Monterey Herald article he said, “This isn’t a matter of chartering some guy’s fishing boat to drive you out to your research site. It’s a matter of bringing them in as bona fide partners.”

Volunteer divers have also played a role with the organization Reef Check, which trained 250 divers in ecosystem monitoring and collected data on 85 sites along the central coast. In addition, the LiMPET program (Long-term Monitoring Program and Experiential Training of Students) gets schoolkids and teachers to take part in recording ocean health.

Involving citizens brings benefits that go beyond data. Claire O’Reilly, a project manager at California Ocean Protection Council, stressed that volunteers spread the word about conservation. “Those people then go out into their communities and talk to their friends and families about how valuable these places are and why they should care,” she told the Herald.

The more people know and understand their underwater parks, including where fishing or harvesting of resources like seaweed is allowed, and where it isn’t, the more successful they’ll be. The great news is that central coast Fish and Wildlife wardens support their enforcement. And as understanding grows, it’s clear that people want to see them protected. Assistant Chief Bob Farrell said that in 2012, the public called the hotline Cal-TIP 259 times to report poaching violations within the marine protected areas.

Penelope Whitney

Photo courtesy mikekbaird, Flickr Creative Commons