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Ocean report calls for the immediate creation of marine reserves throughout the United States
A network of fully protected reserves should be established immediately in all major marine habitats of the coastal United States, according to a sweeping new report on the future of America's oceans.
"The term 'marine reserve' refers to an area in which no extractive use of any biological or mineral resource is allowed," said Stephen R. Palumbi, a professor of biological sciences at Stanford University who authored the January report. "That means all commercial and recreational fishing, as well as oil and gas exploration, would be off limits."
Palumbi's report, Marine Reserves: A Tool for Ecosystem Management and Conservation, is the last in a series of scientific reports on America's oceans prepared for the Pew Oceans Commission -- a Virginia-based policy group chaired by Leon Panetta, former White House chief of staff. The report and other commission recommendations will be presented to the president, members of Congress, governors and local policymakers later this year.
In his report, Palumbi noted that marine ecosystems from Hawaii to Florida "are breaking down, giving way to invading organisms and losing important commercial species, and they are failing to replenish themselves at the same rate they are being damaged or exploited."
Among the major threats to healthy ocean ecosystems are overfishing, habitat alteration, pollution, runoff from land, aquaculture, invasive species, coastal development and climate change.
"Many of these threats go unnoticed because they are beneath the surface -- where casual eyes do not penetrate," Palumbi wrote.
For example, an area equivalent to the landmass of Brazil, Congo and India combined is trawled each year, causing massive disturbance to seafloor habitats. He also cited studies showing that most of the world's fisheries are at or above sustainable level, as commercial fishers harvest some 80 million metric tons of seafood annually. A fully protected marine reserve offers one of the best tools to reverse those trends, Palumbi noted.
"There is strong scientific evidence that marine reserves play a big role in bringing ocean ecosystems back to life once they're protected," Palumbi said. "If they were big enough and numerous enough, they could serve as reservoirs and seeding centers for the rest of the oceans."
Reserves vs. sanctuaries
Although the United States has a large network of federal marine sanctuaries covering vast areas of coastal California, Florida, Hawaii and other states, Palumbi pointed out that they are not designed to provide complete protection for marine species.
"Nationally, reserves make up a tiny fraction -- less than 1 percent -- of marine environments," he wrote. "Yet these reserves have already increased abundance of exploited fish and invertebrates, protected slow-growing biological structures like reefs and provided enhanced fishing and recreational opportunities."
He said that small state and federal reserves have helped restore kelp beds in California, increased lobster size and abundance in Florida and provided a refuge for large lingcod in Washington.
"We know when you have a reserve, fish inside get bigger, become more numerous and leak out the edges," Palumbi observed. "For example, there are more world-record black drum caught in Florida right now on the edge of the Merritt Island marine reserve than anywhere else in the state. Those big fish are leaking across that boundary."
While the black drum experience has been a boon to the sport fishing industry, commercial fishers have not directly benefited from the marine reserve, he noted.
"When you take some area out of production and prevent people from fishing in some places, it's perfectly reasonable to ask if there's a net benefit or loss," he said, "so the report allows for the possibility of an incremental move toward larger and larger reserve networks. They have to be done in context of the local communities -- bringing the local stakeholders into the discussions about where they are, how big they are and how many there are -- and to meld that with the lifestyle of commercial and recreational fishing."
As an example, he cited the Channel Islands Marine Reserve Network established by the State of California on Jan. 1. The network consists of 10 small reserves totaling 133 square nautical miles.
"The Channel Islands network represents one of the first times that local community leaders, scientists, fishermen, divers and recreational users all got together to plan a reserve system," he explained. "It serves as a real model for how this is going to be able to happen in the future."
In his report, Palumbi called for a fundamental reorganization of the role of local, state and federal governments in marine activity -- a move designed to integrate all potentially conflicting uses of the ocean into a comprehensive planning framework.
"Do marine reserves have to be very big to start with? No, they don't," Palumbi said. "It isn't a vision of a few big things like national parks scattered along the coastline, nor is it a grid of medium-sized parks along the coast. Think more about county parks or town libraries -- that's how many and how dense they should be to play the role we're talking about. Even a small thing -- think of it as a library of the sea -- will have local benefits and will generate a whole new way of preserving the oceans for coastal communities."
Establishing new marine reserves will not be easy, he concluded. "It's going to take a long time. We have to start now because it will take time for people to get used to the idea and to have input into the process. If we wait even five or 10 years for things to start, then things will be even worse."
By Mark Shwartz