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Go Fish? Not in Pacific Ocean Sanctuaries off California’s Coast

June 9, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
Correspondent Spencer Michels reports on the controversy over dozens of no-fishing zones off the California coast.
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MARGARET WARNER: Next, the battle over protecting the ocean and how that’s playing out in California.

NewsHour correspondent Spencer Michels has this report, a joint project with KQED’s science show, QUEST.

SPENCER MICHELS: Just before dusk this time of year, the fishing boats return to San Francisco from the Pacific, their cargo of Dungeness crabs headed for stores and restaurants all along the Pacific Coast.

But fishermen are nervous that newly created ocean sanctuaries are about to eat into their catch.

ED TAVASIEFF, fisherman: You get to a point where you say, is this fishery viable any longer? Is it worth it for me to go out there and catch a handful of fish?

SPENCER MICHELS: Fisherman Ed Tavasieff and others are worried about dozens of areas off the coast that California has either designated off-limits to fishing or has limited the take.

Environmentalists say these marine-protected areas, as they’re called, are necessary because of overfishing and pollution.

WARNER CHABOT, League of Conservation Voters: Our biggest challenge is 90 percent of the big fish on the planet are already gone. You know, 75 percent of the fish species in most of the world’s oceans are fished to their absolute limits.

MARIA BROWN, Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary: It’s human disturbance. It’s pollution. It’s development along our shores, that we’re encroaching on habitats.

SPENCER MICHELS: Maria Brown is superintendent of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary off San Francisco.

MARIA BROWN: Twenty, 30 years ago, we thought the ocean was limitless. Solution is the dilution to pollution, we heard. And what we have realized over time is that ocean isn’t limitless. It’s the blood supply of the planet. And it’s being affected over and over again by death by a million cuts.

SPENCER MICHELS: In December, the state Fish and Game Commission narrowly voted to establish 36 protected areas along the state’s southern coastline, more than 350 square miles. That’s more than 15 percent of southern coastal waters where commercial and sport fishing is either restricted or forbidden. Plans for northern waters will be in place by 2012.

When it all gets done, it will be a watershed moment for the state, according to Ken Wiseman, executive director of the California Marine Life Protection Act Initiative, a partnership between the state and private groups.

KEN WISEMAN, California Marine Life Protection Act Initiative: There are big reserves, and there are specific ones in Florida or in New Zealand, but never before have we done an entire network, where the whole state is connected along all 1,200 miles of the coastlines. And I think it’s going to really set a trend and have a healthier ocean.

SPENCER MICHELS: California actually began trying to preserve the ocean nearly 100 years ago. But the areas chosen for protection were too small and didn’t work very well. This time, the zones are bigger, and teams of scientists have advised the state on which areas to protect, which species are crucial and how to monitor the zones to see if they are working.

There are no markers or boundary lines on the surface of the ocean. Fishermen and others are expected to read notices and use GPS to stay out of protected areas. As for the fish?

I asked Steve Weisberg, a biologist with the California Ocean Protection Council.

Do you think a fish is going to know that this is a protected area, and over that line, they could catch me?  

STEPHEN WEISBERG, California Ocean Protection Council: There are — there are MPAs that have been done in other parts of the world where scientists have actually gone and tagged the fish. And after a while, the fish do figure out where the boundaries are, and you actually see them maintaining themselves within the boundaries.

SPENCER MICHELS: Mark Carr, a professor of marine ecology at the University of California at Santa Cruz, has advised the state on marine protected areas since the program got going several years ago.

MARK CARR, University of California, Santa Cruz: They’re really more like the national parks on land, where people only go there to enjoy the natural environment and to recognize that we are protecting intact ecosystems for future generations.

SPENCER MICHELS: Carr also thinks the protected areas will be useful as a baseline to see how a healthy region compares to the rest of the ocean.

One of Carr’s main interests is underwater kelp forests, whose health he considers a major factor in supporting sea life. He and his crews dive into the ocean and count what’s down there.

MARK CARR: We want to make sure there’s plenty of kelp that produces plenty of habitat to support all of the other fish and the invertebrates in the system. And so we send these crews in that are trained to count the invertebrates, the algae and the fishes, using scuba to characterize the relative number of each of the different species.

SPENCER MICHELS: While environmentalists are thrilled at the expansion of protected areas, many fishermen remain unhappy. In the two years of countless meetings up and down the coast, fishermen, surfers, businessmen, conservationists have sparred.

MAN: Fishermen aren’t trying to hide anything. We just want to make a living. That’s all, just feed our families and put food on the table. No one’s getting rich anymore. Sardine days are over with.

MAN: We’re doing everything we possibly can to keep the big fish on the reef.

SPENCER MICHELS: Among those who testified against the protected areas is Larry Collins, president of the Crab Boat Owners Association.

LARRY COLLINS, Crab Boat Owners Association: There’s places that I have put my crabs traps in for the last 20 years that I’m not going to be able to set my crab traps there anymore.

There’s places that I sometimes go salmon trolling. You know, sometimes, they’re there this week or that week. I won’t be able to go in there anymore. It just lessens your options.

SPENCER MICHELS: Besides creating problems for fishermen like him, Collins thinks the marine protected areas won’t do much good.

LARRY COLLINS: There’s no need for them. There’s no need for them at all. It doesn’t make any sense to protect one little part of the ocean. You got to protect the whole thing.

SPENCER MICHELS: But protecting crucial zones does, in effect, protect the whole thing, argues biologist Mark Carr.

MARK CARR: Marine protected areas are thought to be such a crucial tool for what is called ecosystem-based management, because a protected area will protect all the species that interact with one another within an ecosystem, rather than just one little piece at a time, species by species.

SPENCER MICHELS: Even so, Ken Wiseman says he takes seriously the concerns of fishermen like Larry Collins.

KEN WISEMAN: I say to Larry and his colleagues who we invited to come on down and say, let’s figure out how we can minimize that damage to your industry. At the same time, let’s talk about how we can do the long-term investment that makes sure you have fish for you and your grandkids.

But I think we have worked pretty hard to make sure that nobody was put out of business.

SPENCER MICHELS: But that’s not going to help him for the next two or three, four years?

KEN WISEMAN: This is only 16 percent of — of the coastal area, so he’s got 84 percent where he can still fish. And along that 16 percent, it’s going to be a lot healthier and he will be fishing a lot longer.

SPENCER MICHELS: Despite the huge effort to set up these protected areas, there is one obvious potential flaw: The state doesn’t have enough money to enforce the rules.

There aren’t enough game wardens. And so they’re going to have to rely on a network of agencies, plus the public, including fishermen, to keep an eye out for violations.

MARK CARR: The people that are being regulated, particularly the fisherman, both the commercial and the recreational fishers, really have to buy into this idea and have to help police and enforce the protected areas as well.

SPENCER MICHELS: Despite disagreements and some legal action, the zones are becoming law. Scientists say it will take at least five years of close monitoring before they know how effective marine protected areas are in restoring health to the ocean.