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Big Fish Near Marine Reserves Called Weighty Evidence That Bans Work

July 22, 2002|KENNETH R. WEISS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — Since the dawn of the Space Age, fishermen here have grown to accept the 15-square-mile security zone that keeps boats out of the waters surrounding rocket launching pads.

Indeed, clever fishermen long ago learned how to parlay a forbidden zone into a bonanza: If an area is set off-limits, the fishing on the perimeter can be extraordinary.

Scientists more recently discovered the same thing, carefully recording the remarkable abundance of fish in the protected waters surrounding the Kennedy Space Center and the cluster of trophy fish caught just outside the boundary.

This case study of the "spillover effect" has surfaced as a prime argument for establishing similar no-fishing zones off the California coast. State officials are planning a network of no-take zones around the Channel Islands, in addition to last week's emergency closing of most bottom fishing along the continental shelf.

Marine biologists have documented a resurgence of sea life in closed areas in the Florida Keys and on New England's Georges Bank. Other studies have found signs of similar recoveries in marine reserves off New Zealand and South Africa, in the Philippines and the Caribbean.

In a survey of 89 scientific papers, UC Santa Barbara researchers found that 90% of marine reserves around the world had more fish, 84% had much larger fish and shellfish and 59% had a far greater variety of marine life than did adjacent waters. So far, the spillover effect hasn't won many converts among anglers, who disdain it as "junk science," and fear new limits on where they can fish.

Yet fishermen flock to the peripheries of the off-limits areas, their actions belying their skepticism.

"The prime fishing areas have always been right up against the NASA restricted area," said Frederick D. Mastin, who runs the Space Coast Sportfishing Foundation. "Everybody knows that."

Government officials who regulate fishing say they have little choice but to set up the ocean equivalent of wilderness areas to protect disappearing wildlife. Fish stocks have fallen too low. Traditional measures, such as limiting catches or limiting the size of fish taken, have failed to halt the slide.

Without establishing safe havens for breeding stock, regulators say, there will be little left for future generations to catch.

This is considered particularly true for California's largely sedentary, bottom-dwelling rockfish, which are slow to reproduce. Federal officials stepped in July 1 to close 8,500 square miles of California's continental shelf to fishing for rockfish and ling cod--an emergency action to keep these species from edging toward extinction.

What's happening off California makes the abundance of big fish around Cape Canaveral all the more remarkable. Near the space center, anglers say, the fishing has never been better, although they don't always agree on why.

James Bohnsack, a research biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service in Miami, said these fully protected areas function like natural hatcheries, spilling out offspring and adults to restock surrounding areas.

One study of which he was co-author shows that the marine reserve around the Kennedy Space Center is teeming with two to 12 times as many fish as the adjacent waters, depending on the species, and that the fish are much older and larger.

A follow-up study shows that the best anglers have learned to turn this protected bounty to their advantage by working the edges. The number of world record catches of redfish, black drum, spotted sea trout and common snook are higher in the waters adjacent to Cape Canaveral than anywhere else.

"The data was collected by recreational fishermen themselves," said Bohnsack, who is weary of debates over marine reserves. "If I collected it, they would say I'm biased and I made it up. Their own data shows the benefits."

Troy Perez has benefited more than most from the fertile waters around Kennedy Space Center.

A man of few words, Perez has a reputation for reeling in some of the biggest fish ever caught on light tackle and then quietly sending off the records to the International Game Fish Assn.

Enormous fish, stuffed and mounted, line the walls of his den--all caught in the waters near Cape Canaveral. Word of the records spread and fishermen now flock to the Cape Canaveral area, lured by the prospect of landing a big redfish, also known as red drum for their booming grunt. Redfish were nearly wiped out elsewhere during the "blackened redfish" dining craze of the 1980s.

Like other locals, Perez, 39, has long accepted the closing of the cape area, which was first imposed in 1962, before he was born. But he is irked that the restricted zone has been expanded in recent years to protect manatees--slow-moving, half-ton marine mammals--from boat propellers and, more recently, to enlarge the security buffer against possible terrorist attacks.

He acknowledges that these waters, unlike most other places, have remarkable fishing.

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