Thursday, April 4, 2024



Long-time followers of this blog know that I am a skeptic when it comes to marine protected areas, or at least when it comes to those MPAs that enact blanket closures on all types of fishing.

According to the National Marine Fisheries Service,

“Executive Order 13158 defines ‘MPA’ as, ‘Any area of the marine environment that has been reserved by Federal, State, territorial, tribal or local laws or regulations to provide lasting protection for part or all of the natural and cultural resources therein.’”

NMFS goes on to note that

“Without further clarification, the key terms of ‘area,’ ‘marine environment,” ‘reserved,’ ‘lasting,’ and ‘protection’ found in the MPA definition are subject to a range of interpretations and lead to an uncertain scope…Without clear definitions for these five key terms, identifying the sites that should be considered MPAs…would be unclear and efforts to fully implement the Order would be fragmented, diffused, and ultimately unsuccessful.”

With respect to the “protection” provided by an MPA, NMFS says that such area

“Must have existing laws or regulations that are designed and applied to afford the site with increased protection for part or all of the natural and submerged cultural resources therein for the purpose of maintaining or enhancing the lasting conservation of these resources, beyond any protections that apply outside the site.”

Of course, those definitions apply to MPAs created in federal waters, although the concerns about defining what an MPA is and how an MPA should function wherever such an area might be located.

In 1999, California adopted the Marine Life Protection Act, which created a system of MPAs in that state’s coastal waters.  The Act includes eight legislative findings, including three which state that

“California’s marine protected areas (MPAs) were established on a piecemeal basis rather than according to a coherent plan and sound scientific guidelines.  Many of these MPAs lack clearly defined purposes, effective management measures and enforcement.  As a result, the array of MPAs creates the illusion of protection while falling far short of its potential to protect and conserve living marine life and habitat.”

“Fish and other sea life are a sustainable resource, and fishing is an important community asset.  MPAs and sound fishery management are complimentary components of a comprehensive effort to sustain marine habitats and fisheries.”


“For all of the above reasons, it is necessary to modify the existing collection of MPAs to ensure that they are designed and managed according to clear, conservation-based goals and guidelines that take full advantage of the multiple benefits that can be derived from the establishment of marine life reserves.”

That seemingly reasonable language, when read closely, explains why I tend to be skeptical about MPAs, particularly when one realizes that the Act defines “marine life reserves” as

“a marine protected area in which all extractive activities, including the taking of marine species, and, at the discretion of the [Fish and Game] commission and within the authority of the commission, other areas that upset the natural ecological functions of the area, are prohibited.  While, to the extent feasible, the area shall be open to the public for managed enjoyment and study, the area shall be maintained to the extent practicable in an undisturbed and unpolluted state.”

My skepticism arises from the fact that, while the Act might include a legislative finding that California’s network of MPAs needed to be reorganized

“To ensure that California’s MPAs have clearly defined objectives, effective management measures, and adequate enforcement, and are based on sound scientific guidelines, [emphasis added]”

the Act nonetheless calls for the establishment of “marine life reserves” which prohibit all fishing, even if such fishing targets a species that is in no need of additional protection and causes no harm to living marine resources or to the relevant habitat, despite the legislative finding that “fish and other sea life are a sustainable resource, and fishing is an important community asset.”

Too often, whether in California or elsewhere, MPA advocates seek to arbitrarily shut down all fishing activities, including such activities that cause no measurable harm to marine resources or marine ecosystems.

Recently, a commercial fisherman in California challenged such arbitrary closures off the southern California coast, filing a petition with the California Fish and Game Commission requesting that it open three areas, designated the Footprint, Gulf Island, and Santa Barbara Island marine life reserves, to low-impact fishing activities.

The fisherman, Blake Hermann, is engaged in the harpoon fishery for swordfish, and is seeking to modify the three MPAs to allow the harvest of various pelagic fish species within their boundaries.  His preferred management action would allow the recreational harvest of highly migratory species, commercial hook and line fishing for highly migratory species, commercial harpooning of swordfish, and the possession of, but not fishing for, coastal pelagic species (defined by the State of California to include certain species of anchovy, sardines, mackerel, and squid) within the entirety of the three named MPAs, along with the use of deep-set buoy gear within the MPA’s federal portions.

However, Mr. Hermann would settle for modifications that allowed for the commercial and recreational harvest of highly migratory species caught by “surface fishing methods” (a term that specifically includes trolling, casting bait and lures, and drifting baits near the surface, but specifically excludes deep-dropping), commercial harpooning of swordfish, and the possession, but not fishing for, coastal pelagic species.

It's a logical request, at least with respect to swordfish and other highly migratory species.

The three MPAs in question are small; in the aggregate spanning only 39.75 square miles of ocean.  However, they do include a wide range of depths, reaching from the shoreline into water more than 2,000 feet deep.  Access to deep water makes the area attractive to swordfish, which often feed at substantial depths.  Their proximity to coastal islands’ shores also makes them attractive to Mr. Hermann, who says that when the wind blows, he can shelter in the lee of such islands when looking for swordfish, which can be difficult if not impossible to spot in a choppy sea.

According to the National Marine Fisheries Service, Eastern Pacific swordfish are not overfished.  Even if they were, it’s difficult to argue that closing less than 40 square miles of ocean would make a meaningful contribution to conserving the swordfish resource, given NMFS’ advice that

“Scientists know little about the migration of Pacific swordfish, but tagging data suggest swordfish move eastward from the central Pacific, north of Hawaii, toward the U.S. West Coast.”

In addition, the California Ocean Protection Council notes that

“Bycatch in the harpoon fishery is close to zero.”

It’s impossible to successfully argue that closing less than 40 square miles of ocean to swordfishing is going to have any impact on the swordfish resource, or that the swordfish harpoon fishery, with its “close to zero” bycatch, is going to do harm to any species residing within the three named MPAs.

It’s not that the three MPA’s aren’t otherwise beneficial.  As Mr. Hermann stated in his petition,

“The Footprint was originally established with the primary intention to protect the unique rocky reefs and rebuild the rockfish populations.  The [impact statement required by the California Environmental Quality Act] discussed the depleted groundfish stocks at the time and mentioned how they would benefit the most from the MPA’s implementation.  The Gulf Island and SBI reserves also discuss deep water reefs and rockfish, but focus more on endangered bird nesting grounds, abalone populations, and the more diverse, nearshore species along the islands they border.  The broad implications of the MPAs in the CEQA was the intention that local populations of fish, birds, and mammals inside the MPAs would, ‘respond to protection within the reserve through with increased density, individual size, and reproductive potential.’

“This logic is something we see echoed today in the modern MPA overviews of the three MPAs and the goals of the MPA Master Plan.  In the MPA overviews under, ‘Why was this location chosen for a state marine reserve?’ we still sea reasons such as the protection of canyons, rocky reefs, pinnacles, kelp forests, and rocky nearshore habitats for local non-pelagic species including copper rockfish, sheepshead, cowcod, and bocaccio.  However, there is zero mention of any pelagic or HMS in these overviews  [citations omitted]”

But the issue illustrates why I’m skeptical about the use of MPAs. 

They can be very valuable tools when tailored to address a particular need, whether that need is protecting unique areas of live bottom, hard bottom habitat, or populations of non-migratory fish.  But the key phrase is “address a particular need.”

Too often, MPAs are viewed as a panacea, and their proponents’ often seek to shut down all access to living marine resources, including those populations that don’t need such radical protections, and regardless of whether a particular fishing method causes any environmental harm.  

Such advocates are fond of creating arbitrary goals.  They’ll cry, “Let’s protect 30 percent of the ocean!” without ever demonstrating, with statistically valid data and peer-reviewed science, why 30 percent, and not 20 or 25 percent—or 45 or 50 percent—is the appropriate figure, just as they will call for much of that 30 percent to be composed of no-take marine reserves, without explaining how or why closing one relatively small piece of sea will provide meaningful protection for species like swordfish that can and do traverse thousands of miles over the course of a year.  They will call for such closures without explaining why strict, science-based fishery management won’t, in most instances, provide needed protections without placing publicly-owned fisheries resources off-limits to the public.

Their failure to make a credible case for no-take MPAs also creates an unfortunate rift between the fishing community, many members of which support effective, science-based fisheries management, and the larger marine conservation community who, by advocating for marine reserves, become a threat  to continued fishing activities and so create a new legion of fishermen who are hostile to conservation efforts.

What is really needed, by the fish and the fishermen, is what Mr. Hermann seems to be asking for: Not an end to MPAs, but a new beginning, where MPAs are created to address a particular problem, and do not arbitrarily shut down activities that offer no threat to either marine resources or marine ecosystems.

That sort of more sensible MPA would benefit everyone.





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