Most of us are aware of the importance of protecting ecosystems through open space acquisition. National parks, wildlife reserves, and state forests have made a significant contribution to environmental stewardship. But what about the ocean? How does the conservation ethic transfer to marine waters?
Marine protected areas (MPA’s) have been established throughout the world for many years, most notably the marine sanctuary program in the United States. “No-take” and “No-impact” areas have been very successful in re-establishing depleted marine species populations such as commercially important fish. By prohibiting the discharge of sewage and other chemicals, or preventing the extraction of minerals and energy resources, several sections of the ocean have recovered from previous environmental threats.
A special category of an MPA is a marine reserve. Fishing and any kind of industrial activity is prohibited in these areas. Only about 8% of the existing MPA’s in the U.S. are considered marine reserves, but their success rate is well documented. After a period of time these reserves are characterized by an increase in both biomass and biodiversity. Because these systems are allowed to undergo a natural restoration, many species recover, reproduce, and migrate to colonize other regions. Marine reserves act as fish factories, producing more and moving into nearby territories. A balance is also achieved in that a complex food web returns with the natural relationships between predators and prey. Also, substrate habitats get restored when damaging fishing techniques such as bottom trawling are prohibited. Small marine creatures require the nooks and crannies of a rocky and uneven substrate to survive.
Of course forming marine reserves often faces powerful opposition from industrial and recreational interests. That is why these sections of the ocean are often located in areas already established as marine sanctuaries or parks that are currently supervised by the federal or state governments. Marine scientists have been advocating that more reserves be established to continue their high success rate.
A marine reserve becomes an important tool in the ongoing effort to improve the management of marine resources. Dealing with the serious problems of climate change, loss in biodiversity, overfishing, and coastal pollution requires an ecosystem approach that looks at the big picture and is not just a short-term reaction to the decline of a single species. I also believe that this should not be the sole responsibility of coastal states. Indeed, it is in the national interest to protect and conserve marine resources so that they can continue to renew and replenish.
Copyright Gil Newton 2009 Thanks to Chris Dumas for logo image.