About two months ago, I wrote a blog about a conservation movement that’s been nicknamed “30x30,” which seeks to have 30 percent of lands, inland waters, and ocean protected by the year 2030. From a fisheries perspective, that means an expansion of marine protected areas.
Marine protected areas are always a hot topic, as they restrict access to, and harvest from, waters where fishing had previously occurred. There is generally substantial outcry and public opposition when an MPA is proposed. Some of that outcry comes from fishermen who just resist change, and don’t want to see any encroachment on their ability to access the entire expanse of their local waters. Some comes from the fact that, to many fishermen, the term “Marine Protected Area” means an area of ocean that is completely closed off to commercial and recreational fishing.
But that latter belief isn’t necessarily true. The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration has adopted the definition of “protected area” used by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, which merely states that a “protected area” is
“A clearly defined geographical space, recognized, dedicated, and managed, through legal or other effective means, to achieve the long-term conservation of nature with associated ecosystem services and cultural values.”
Protected areas, including marine protected areas, exist solely to conserve natural resources. Conservation doesn’t always require complete prohibitions on fishing and/or other outdoor activities. And the above definition makes it clear that conservation is supposed to be accomplished in “association” with “cultural values,” which in most cases would include the values associated with fishing activities.
That definition of “protected area” would militate against the creation of an MPA that advances conservation but, at least to the extent possible, does not also support the cultural values associated with fishing. While there may be places where a total prohibition on fishing might be required to achieve a particular conservation goal, properly-designed MPAs should usually be able to promote conservation while allowing some level of fishing activity. In doing that, they can also provide significant benefits to fishermen.
Right now, such a well thought-out MPA is being developed in the Florida Keys.
The area in question is called the “Western Dry Rocks,” and lies about 10 miles southwest of Key West. It's small, only about one square mile in size, but is an important spawning site for many different species of snapper and grouper, along with a number of other, unrelated, reef fish. It is also a popular destination for Key West’s charter fishing fleet, and as both biologists and fishermen have learned to their sorrow, fishing on important spawning aggregations of fish can do a lot of harm, regardless of other management measures that might be put in place to conserve them.
Protecting spawning aggregations, on the other hand, has historically paid benefits, and led to stock rebuilding.
Western Dry Rocks is a particularly important spawning area, not only because of the number of species that aggregate there, but also because the currents that pass through the area pick up fish eggs and larvae and carry them along the Florida Keys and up to the southern Florida mainland, helping to maintain fish populations along the way.
Thus, there is a compelling conservation argument for including the Western Dry Rocks in an MPA.
The State of Florida is proposing to close the one square mile area around Western Dry Rocks to all fishing during the months of May and June, which is the peak spawning season for mutton, gray, and yellowtail snapper, as well as for permit. Extending the area closure to April and July would protect all four species throughout their entire spawning period, so Florida is seeking stakeholder input on both a two-month and a four-month closure.
Grouper tend to spawn earlier in the year—January through April—when the fishing season for them is already closed, although one species of grouper, the scamp, spawns from January through June, so would also benefit from the closure.
Catch and release fishing isn’t an option during the spawning period. While most people who fish for snapper and grouper are seeking fish to take home, anglers do pursue permit just for sport. However, research indicates that 39 percent of the permit hooked at Western Dry Rocks are eaten by sharks, a level of fishing mortality that could do real harm to a spawning aggregation.
Thus, there is a good argument for prohibiting fishing at Western Dry Rocks during the spawn. The spawning aggregations need to be protected, and due to the abundant sharks, nothing less restrictive than a complete prohibition would provide the aggregations, particularly the aggregations of permit, with adequate protection.
Thus, the proposed Western Dry Rocks closure satisfies the three criteria that ought to be met any time an MPA is considered: 1) There is a clear conservation need that justifies the added protections, 2) the area is only closed when such closures further the conservation goal, and 3) less-restrictive management measures would not lead to the desired result.
The good news is that, with those criteria met, anglers and angling-related businesses are supportive of the proposed closure.
“calling on the Florida Fish & Wildlife Game Commission to establish a seasonal no-fishing closure at Western Dry Rocks south of Key West. This would give breeding fish the chance to spawn, resulting in a healthier population, while at the same time preserving the opportunity to fish at Western Dry Rocks in the off-season.”
It further notes that
“Permit, Mutton Snapper, Mangrove Snapper, Grouper and more all spawn at Western Dry Rocks. And keeping them safe while they do is just one step toward a healthy long-term fishery…Preserving an area of just 1.3 square miles for a handful of months can make an immense difference in keeping this breeding stock healthy, as well as the generation of new fish they spawn.”
“It is my wholehearted believe after spending over a quarter century passionately learning about this one species [permit] that STRATEGIC CLOSURES will need to become a significant tool for a productive future in the fishery management of our Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.”
The closures have even gained the support of the Coastal Conservation Association, a national “anglers’ rights” organization, and from the American Sportfishing Association, a tackle industry trade group. Such organizations’ support is notable, for both have traditionally opposed closing waters to recreational fishing. But this time, the American Sportfishing Association went so far as to urge anglers to support the closure, saying
“Ten miles southwest of Key West, the Western Dry Rocks hosts multiple spawning schools of recreationally important species such as permit, snapper and grouper. It is also directly adjacent to unique currents that enhance spawning success by distributing eggs and juvenile fish throughout south Florida, ensuring sustainable recreational fisheries.
“After much discussion, [Florida] is currently considering a seasonal closure of one square mile to protect this special area. The initial proposal included a two-month closure for May and June. However, multiple fishing and conservation groups agree that the science strongly supports protecting this important area for a longer amount of time.
“Therefore, we are asking fisheries managers to close the area during the four-month peak spawning season (April-July) to give maximum benefits to the multiple fisheries while still allowing fishing access during the rest of the year.”
When you see groups such as CCA and ASA, which have traditionally opposed closing fishing areas, not only support the Western Dry Rocks closure, but even request that the area be closed for longer than the government originally proposed, you can be certain that the people designing the closure are doing everything right.
The discussion surrounding the Western Dry Rocks closure demonstrates that marine protected areas don’t need to be centers of conflict.
If the people designing MPAs take care to explain why closures are needed, limit their duration to times that make biological sense, and take care that restrictions are no more severe than needed to address recognized problems, marine protected areas can be the focus of broad agreement as well.