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A sea change for Southern California?

A state panel could determine if crucial protections will sink or swim.

October 21, 2009|Sylvia Earle | Sylvia Earle is an explorer-in-residence with the National Geographic Society and founder of the Deep Search Foundation.

On Thursday, a state task force could recommend meaningful protections for crucial parts of the ocean off Southern California. Or it could settle for far too little.

In the 50 years I've been exploring the world's oceans, I've seen drastic changes. Many of the marine species we depend on for food and other products have been decimated -- existing now at only about 10% of their previous levels. And as marine life has disappeared, commercial fishing operations have faltered or failed.

Our oceans are at a tipping point. Which means we still have a chance to tip things back in the right direction -- if we act now. And that's where the California task force comes in.

One way of restoring oceans that has been employed successfully around the world is through the establishment of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), designated zones of particular ecological importance in which endangered habitat and marine life are strictly regulated. Commercial and sport fishing interests have often initially objected to the whole idea, saying it imposes unworkable restrictions, including outright fishing bans in certain areas. But in a number of the nearly 50 countries that have used them, including New Zealand, Australia, the Philippines, Ecuador, Chile and Mexico, the fishing communities have come to support them and even ask for more protection to be established. They have seen fish populations begin to rebound and the health of entire ecosystems improve, which ultimately means increased catches and larger fish. This kind of approach -- good for the environment, good for the economy and good for the community -- is key to successful environmental protections.

California, under a state law passed in 1999, is leading the way in the U.S. by creating the first network of MPAs in state waters, which extend three miles out from the coast. Protected zones already have been established in Central and Northern California.

Now it's time, under the law, for Southern California to establish its Marine Protected Areas, but the process has become quite contentious. Stakeholders, including commercial and recreational fishermen, conservationists, educators, government officials and business owners, have been working together for over a year to map out the best places for MPAs in Southern California. But their different priorities have resulted in three different proposals.

On Thursday, a blue-ribbon task force meeting in Long Beach will listen to testimony and then vote on which of the three maps to adopt. Its recommendation will then go before the California Fish and Game Commission in December. The three maps are available for public viewing at www.dfg.ca.gov/mlpa/.

People who are against protecting crucial areas of the ocean say that doing so will lead to economic disaster. In fact, the disaster is already here: There aren't enough fish left. Protected zones in the Channel Islands, the rest of the California coast and the other 50 countries in the world that use them haven't caused the sort of economic upheaval predicted by opponents. It's interesting to note that the most extreme opposition to MPAs occurs in places that don't have them yet.

Already, there are 64 MPAs in California, like jewels spaced out along a necklace. And jewels they are. Divers and scientists alike have remarked on the stark differences inside and outside the boundaries of these protected areas. Inside, one is surrounded by a cathedral of lush kelp teeming with abundant sea life, amazing diversity and even some of the rare giants such as black sea bass weighing up to 200 pounds. The contrast is great outside the protected areas, where kelp forests are less healthy and there are fewer and smaller fish. In fact, economists and scientists agree that several commercial fisheries already have increased their catch in the northern Channel Islands (adjacent to the MPAs), and recreational fishing has increased too. Giving marine life some space to breed and grow means that eventually, outside these protected areas, fish will be bigger and more abundant too.

The three maps being considered for Southern California represent three different approaches. But only one, Map 3, actually follows science guidelines established under the law, which emphasize protection and restoration of valuable marine habitats, including rich kelp forests, nurseries, sea-grass beds where juvenile lobsters grow up, and the rare deep-water canyons where squid spawn and rock fish dart among crevices. While neither of the other maps meet the guidelines, Map 3 protects these special places while still leaving 90% of Southern California's coastal waters open to fishing.

Protecting marine life benefits everyone. It's time to implement effective solutions, and we have one before us now.

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