STATEWIDE — Marine protected areas, or MPAs, are, depending on whom you ask, a much-needed aid to help restore marine life or an effective tool to manage aquatic ecosystems.
MPAs currently cover about 15 percent of the Southern California coast. There are 21 State Marine Conservation Areas, 19 Special Marine Reserves, 10 no-take areas and two special closures covering 356 square miles between Pt. Conception and the California-Mexico border.
The California Fish and Game Commission will be voting to extend the review period for the state’s MPA network from 5 to 10 years. Environmentalists say the extra time is needed to realize sustainable results. Anglers worry extending the life of MPAs means several more years of not being able to access many portions of the coast for fishing activities.
Those unhappy with the prospects of California’s MPAs being extended accused the commission of failing to keep its promises.
One fishing advocacy group said the state’s adoption of the Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) – which established the framework for MPAs to exist – altered California’s approach to conservation of aquatic resources.
“There is no question that the passage of the Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) has been the most controversial environmental issue California’s angling community has ever faced,” California Sportfishing League Executive Director Marko Mlikotin wrote in a Letter to the Editor in May. “It signaled the state’s shift from a shared philosophy of conserving California’s natural resources to outright protectionism, with little regard to the interests of outdoor recreation, tourism and all of their economic benefits.”
FGC President Eric Sklar repeatedly stated during public meetings that no one with the commission or Department of Fish and Wildlife (DFW) promised MPAs would be lifted after five years.
“I think there was a misconception. I couldn’t find anywhere where it was stated that these areas were being protected so fishing could be restored in those areas,” Sklar said during the FGC’s April 13 meeting. “That may be a result, but I think it’s not a short-, medium-, or even a long-term result that fishing is likely to happen in few, if any, of these MPAs.”
He reiterated this same point at the commission’s meeting last month.
Are marine ecosystems in such a poor condition as to require strict (and long-term) conservation measures? Are MPAs effectively punishing anglers for harms caused to the marine ecosystem by non-fishing activities?
The first MPA was established off the coast of Florida in 1935, according to Susan Gubbay, a researcher who authored “Marine Protected Areas – Principles and Techniques for Management” in 1995. It took a long while for MPAs to become a mainstream policy consideration by regional, state or federal governments.
“Although [the first MPA] site was designated in 1935, the main impetus for MPAs came much later,” she wrote. “The World Congress on National Parks in 1962 was one of the first international conservation meetings to give the subject special attention; a follow-up meeting, in 1982, called for the incorporation of marine, coastal and freshwater sites into the worldwide network of protected areas.”
Gubbay added MPAs are tangible tools for policymakers and the public at-large to use in marine conservation efforts.
“They are an opportunity to concentrate effort and resources on protecting marine wildlife habitats,” she wrote. “It is possible to visit a Marine Protected Area, to see what is being done to promote conservation at the site, and to be a part of its success or failure through individual actions.”
While MPAs can easily be viewed as well-intentioned and a tool to benefit nature and the environment there are unintended consequences, according to a group of international scientists who, in 2003, published “Dangerous Targets? Unresolved issues and ideological clashes around marine protected areas.”
“While conservationists, resource managers, scientists and coastal planners have recognized the broad applicability of MPAs, they are often implemented without a firm understanding of the conservation science – both ecological and socio-economic –underlying marine protection,” the abstract of the published report stated. “The rush to implement MPAs has set the stage for paradoxical differences of opinions in the marine conservation community.”
Pushing too hard for marine conservation through MPAs could alienate certain sections of the public, possibly at the expense of making actual progress, the published report stated.
“The enthusiastic prescription of simplistic solutions to marine conservation problems risks polarization of interests and ultimately threatens bona ﬁde progress in marine conservation. The blanket assignment and advocacy of empirically unsubstantiated rules of thumb in marine protection creates potentially dangerous targets for conservation science,” the report abstract explained.”
Perhaps there is a happy medium where environmentalists and anglers work together to preserve marine ecosystems while granting recreational fishers access to prime locations off the California coast.
The commission will likely make a final decision on the future of MPAs at its August 24 meeting in Folsom.