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Channel Islands offers a roadmap to healthy seas

While the world’s population of ocean vertebrates has declined by nearly 50% in the past half century, California’s Channel Islands offer an example of how to restore fish populations while helping adapt to climate change, according to a report from Environment America released Thursday, Feb. 4.

Rules banning commercial fishing, seabed mining and other high-intensity human activities in waters around the five-island chain in the Santa Barbara Channel boosted the fish population by 50% over the course of a decade. The size of the fish also increased, resulting in an 80% increase in the total mass of sea life, the report says in its examination of six such sanctuaries in the U.S. and Pacific Rim.

“The stories in this report all point to one crucial conclusion: When we act to preserve key ocean habitats, marine wildlife can get a foothold on survival,” said Wendy Wendlandt, acting president of Environment America. “Sea turtles, coral reefs, endangered birds — all of these increasingly scarce, wonderful creatures have a better chance of bouncing back if governments set aside critical ocean areas.”

The report comes less than a month after a University of Washington study documented the West Coast overall as having one the world’s most aggressive fishery management programs, leading to a dramatic rebound in the largely bottom-dwelling groundfish species that were hard hit by overfishing 30 years ago.

The marine protected areas singled out by the Environment America report represent the strictest of fishery management techniques, especially when they permanently ban all fishing and industrial activity. But they can also help ensure long-term sustainable fishing in adjacent areas and can be coordinated with less aggressive restrictions, including catch limits, to replenish overfished areas and ensure fish are available for human consumption indefinitely.

More protections wanted

Currently, just 2.7% of the ocean area worldwide has highly to fully protected designations. In the U.S., the figure is 23% — but the study notes that 99% of those U.S. protected waters are in the remote western Pacific, leaving much of the coastal continent without such safeguards.

In California state waters — those within 3 miles of land — 16% are in marine protected areas. That drops slightly to 15% in Southern California, where such near-shore areas include all or part of waters offshore of Dana Point, Laguna Beach, Crystal Cove, the Palos Verdes peninsula and Point Dume, as well as Upper Newport Bay and the Bolsa Chica wetlands.

The Environment America report calls for governments worldwide to establish protective areas in 30% of their ocean waters and for the U.S. to expand its protections to more areas off the continental coast.

“We’ve taken too much from the oceans and put too much pollution back in,” said Kelsey Lamp, co-author of the report. “It’s time to give our oceans a chance to recover. Restoring broken ocean ecosystems starts with protections.”

In California, commercial fishermen complained about the loss of fish harvests and of income when a variety of restrictions were placed on them over the past two decades. But with fish stocks largely recovered, both commercial and sports fishermen are happily benefiting from the bounty, according to Mike Conroy of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Association, a trade group, and Ken Franke, president of the Sportsfishing Association of California.

“I think everybody’s happy with how it’s evolved,” Franke said.

Channel Islands

In 2003, California protected 12 areas adjacent to the Channel Islands, making them off limits to all fishing, oil and mining activities, with the exceptions of limited fishing of lobster and fish that feed near the surface in two of the areas.

In 2012, California established the country’s first statewide marine protected area network, though the Channel Islands sanctuary remains the largest single marine protected area network off the continental United States.

Cabezon, lingcod and black rockfish are among the species that have dramatically recovered. The growth of sheephead and spiny lobster populations, meanwhile, has meant more of those predators eating sea urchins, which in turn translates to less urchin destruction of kelp beds. That kelp supports “more diverse communities, complex food webs and healthy fish populations,” the report says.

The other success stories highlighted in the report are the Dry Tortugas Ecological Reserve in Florida, Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument in Hawaii, Cabo Plumo in Mexico, the Great Barrier Reef’s no-take marine reserves in Australia, and Edmonds Underwater Park in Washington.

Climate change

The report also tracked efforts to preserve mangroves and wetlands, noting both are important because they “not only soak up huge quantities of carbon dioxide, but can also fortify our shorelines against rising sea levels and extreme weather events that are all but guaranteed to become more frequent as the climate crisis escalates.”

Coral reefs can also help, as they serve as natural breakwaters and absorb the force of waves before hitting land.

The report also cites a 2017 study, “Marine Reserves Can Mitigate and Promote Adaptation to Climate Change,” concluding that marine reserves can “help ecosystems and humans adapt to five climate change impacts — acidification, rising sea levels, intensification of extreme weather events, shift in species distribution, and decreased productivity and oxygen availability.”

Environment America’s Wendlandt pointed out that while marine protected areas are a relatively recent phenomenon, they are in the longstanding U.S. tradition of land-based wildlife refuges.

“This report makes it clear that setting aside critical ocean habitats is also a key component to this conservation legacy — that being good stewards of our seas starts with protecting our most vulnerable and amazing life under the waves,” she said.

Source: Orange County Register

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