Creating Havens for Marine Life

Marine protected areas are urgently needed to stem the tide of marine biodiversity loss.

The United States is the world’s best-endowed maritime nation, its seas unparalleled in richness and biological diversity. The waters along its 150,000 kilometers of shoreline encompass virtually every type of marine habitat known and a profusion of marine species–some of great commercial value, others not. It is paradoxical, then, that the United States has done virtually nothing to conserve this great natural resource or to actively stem the decline of the oceans’ health.

As a result, the U.S. national marine heritage is gravely threatened. The damage goes on largely unnoticed because it takes place beneath the deceptively unchanging blanket of the ocean’s surface. The marine environment is rapidly undergoing change at the hands of humans, revealing the notion of vast and limitless oceans as folly. Human degradation takes many forms and results from many activities, such as overfishing, filling of wetlands, coastal deforestation, the runoff of land-based fertilizers, and the discharge of pollution and sediment from rivers, almost all of which goes on unchecked. Out of sight, out of mind.

The signs of trouble are everywhere. The formerly rich and commercially critical fish stocks of Georges Bank in the Northeast have collapsed, gutting the economy and the very nature of communities along New England’s shores. In Long Island Sound, Narragansett Bay, the Chesapeake, and throughout the inlets of North Carolina, toxic blooms of algae disrupt the food chain and affect human health. In Florida, the third largest barrier reef in the world is suffering from coral bleaching, coral diseases, and algal overgrowth. Just inland, fixing the ecological damage to the great Everglades is expected to cost billions of dollars. Conditions are even worse in the Gulf of Mexico, where riverborne runoff has created a “dead zone” of lifeless water that covers thousands of square miles and is expanding fast.

In California, rampant overfishing has depleted stocks of abalone and other organisms of the kelp forests, spelling potential doom for the beloved sea otter in the process. At the same time, the state’s most valued symbol–its golden beaches–are more and more frequently closed to swimming because bacteria levels exceed health standards. Along the Northwest coast, several runs of salmon have been placed on the endangered species list, creating huge protection costs to states that contain their native rivers. And in Alaska, global climate change, accumulation of toxins such as PCBs and DDT, and radical shifts in the food web in response to stock collapses and fisheries technologies have caused dramatic declines in seabird, steller’s sea lion, and otter populations. All this is taking place in the world’s wealthiest and most highly advanced nation, which prides itself on its commitment to the environment.

Worse still, scientists now consider these ominous signs mere droplets of water that presage the bursting of a dam. Yet the nation remains stuck in the reactive mode. Unable to anticipate where the next trouble spot will be and unwilling to invest in measures such as creating protected areas, the United States is far from being the world leader in coastal conservation that it claims to be.

Marine protected areas are urgently needed to stem the tide of marine biodiversity loss. They can protect key habitats and boost fisheries production inside and outside the reserves. They also can provide model or test areas for integrating the management of coastal and marine resources across various jurisdictions and for furthering scientific understanding of how marine systems function and how to aid them.

To date, the nation has designated only 12 National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) marine sanctuaries in federal waters (from 3 to 200 miles out). Together, they cover far less than 1 percent of U.S. waters. This is simply much too small to promote conservation of marine ecosystems. Furthermore, less than 0.1 percent of this area is actually designated as no-take reserve or closed area. Most of the sanctuaries cater to commercial and recreational needs and have no teeth whatsoever for providing the necessary controls on damage. Even the newest sanctuaries have no way of addressing degradation due to runoff from land-based activities. Similar situations exist for the smattering of no-take areas designated by states within their jurisdiction (from shore to three miles out). The case of California reserves is typical, where no-take zones make up only 0.2 percent of state waters.

Coastal and marine protected areas can come in many types, shapes, and sizes. Around the world, they encompass everything from small “marine reserves” established to protect a threatened species, unique habitat, or site of cultural interest to vast multiple-use areas that have a range of conservation, economic, and social objectives. “Harvest refugia” or “no-take zones” are small areas closed to fisheries extraction, designed to protect a particular stock or suite of species (usually fish or shellfish) from overexploitation. “Biosphere reserves” are multiple-use zones with core and buffer areas that exist within the United Nations’ Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO’s) network of protected areas. Then there are “marine sanctuaries,” which one might think are quiet wilderness areas left to nature. But in the United States, just the opposite is true. The 12 sanctuaries are places bustling with sightseers, fishermen, divers, boaters, and entrepreneurs hawking souvenirs. Elsewhere in the world, the term means a closed area.

So we are left with a useful mix of options but a confusing array of terminology. The term “marine protected area,” though admittedly not very sexy, is the only one that encompasses the full range of intentions and designs.

Although the United States has not established truly effective marine protected areas, the time is right for surging ahead with a new system. There is growing public awareness of national ineptitude in dealing with marine environmental issues. A solid body of data has been amassed that suggests that marine protected areas are truly effective in meeting many important conservation goals. Momentum is growing to take what has been learned from conservation on land and apply it to the seas. Furthermore, sectors of society that might not have supported protected areas in the past now seem ready to do so, as is the case with Northeast fishermen who historically resisted regulations but now demand better conservation as their industry collapses.

The United States is at a crossroads. It can choose to ignore the declining health and productivity of the oceans, or it can use marine protected areas to conserve what is healthy and bring back some of what has been lost. These areas are needed on three fronts as a way to manage marine resources and prevent overfishing, conserve the various coastal and marine habitats, and create demonstrations of how to integrate the management of activities on land, around rivers, in the sea, and between state and federal jurisdictions. In considering how to meet each of these purposes, it would be wise to heed lessons from marine protected areas established in other parts of the world.

Limiting overexploitation

Decisionmakers and the public are increasingly aware that fisheries commonly deplete resources beyond levels that can be sustained. Over two-thirds of the world’s commercially fished stocks are overfished or at their sustainable limits, according to Food and Agricultural Organization statistics. The examples in U.S. waters have become well known: cod off New England, groupers in the Gulf of Mexico, abalone along California, and so on. Overfishing affects not only the stock itself but also communities of organisms, ecological processes, and even entire ecosystems that are critical to the oceans’ overall health.

The continuing drive to exploit marine resources stems from an increasing reliance on protein from the sea to feed burgeoning human populations, livestock, and aquaculture operations. Factory ships cause clear damage, but extensive small-scale fishing can also be devastating to marine populations. In light of what seems to be serial mismanagement of commercial fisheries, the United States must take several measures. The first is to acquire better information on the true ecosystemwide effects of fisheries activity. Second is to shift the way evidence of impact is gathered, so that the burden of proof and the resources spent on trying to establish that proof are not solely the responsibility of conservationists. Third is to make greater use of marine protected areas and fisheries reserves to strengthen current management and provide control sites for further scientific understanding of new management techniques.

The 12 NOAA marine sanctuaries cover far less than 1 percent of U.S. coastal waters.

The marine fisheries crisis stems not just from the amount of stock removed but also from how it is removed. Fishing methods commonly used to catch commercially valuable species also kill other species that do not carry a good price tag. This “bycatch” can constitute a higher percentage of the catch than the targeted fish–in some cases, nearly 30 times more by weight. Most of the bycatch is accidentally killed or intentionally destroyed, and many of the species are endangered. For example, surface longline fishing kills thousands of seabirds annually; midwater longlining has been implicated in the dramatic population decline of the leatherback turtle. Habitat alteration can be an even greater problem. For example, bottom trawling kills the plants and animals that live on the sea floor and interrupts key ecological processes. Clearly, controls on the quantity of catch do not slow the habitat destruction that results from how we fish. Marine protected areas would reduce overfishing while also staving off habitat destruction.

Protected areas would also actually boost the recovery of depleted stocks. Scientific studies on the effect of no-take reserves in East Africa, Australia, Jamaica, the Lesser Antilles, New Zealand, the Philippines, and elsewhere all suggest that small, strictly protected no-take areas result in increased fish production inside those areas. Preliminary evidence from a 1997 fishing ban in 23 small coral reef reserves by the Florida Keys Marine Sanctuary indicates that several important species, including spiny lobsters and groupers, are already beginning to rebound. Protected areas can even increase production outside the reserve by providing safe havens for regional fish in various life stages, notably increasing the survivorship of juvenile fish. Fears that no-take areas merely attract fish and thus give a false impression of increased productivity have been put to rest.

The results of these studies has sparked excitement in the fisheries management community. Garry Russ of James Cook University and Angel Alcala of the Philippines’ Department of Environmental and Natural Resources have shown that a small protected area by Apo Island in the Philippines increased fish yields well outside its boundaries in less than a decade after its establishment. Recent scientific papers, including fisheries reviews from the Universities of East Anglia, Wales, York, and Newcastle upon Tyne in Britain document the success of marine protected areas in helping manage fisheries, including Kenyan refuges, closed areas and coral reef reserves throughout the Caribbean, New Zealand fishery reserves, several Mediterranean reserves, invertebrate reserves in Chile, Red Sea reserves, and fisheries zones in Florida. The ideal situation seems to be the establishment of closed areas within larger, multiple-use protected areas such as a coastal biosphere reserve or marine sanctuary. However, as results from studies in Jamaica have shown, if the larger area is badly overused or degraded, the closed areas within it cannot survive.

Reducing degradation

There are myriad ways beyond fishing by which we alter marine ecosystems. Perhaps the most ubiquitous and insidious is the conversion of coastal habitat: the filling in of wetlands, urbanization of the coastline, transformation of natural harbors into ports, and siting of industrial centers on coastal land. Such development eliminates or pollutes the ocean’s ecologically most important areas: estuaries and wetlands that serve as natural nurseries, feeding areas, and buffers for maintaining balance between salt and fresh water. A recent and alarming trend has been the conversion of such critical habitats for aquaculture operations, in which overall biodiversity is undermined to maximize production of a single species.

We degrade marine ecosystems indirectly as well. Land-based sources of fertilizers, pesticides, sewage, heavy metals, hydrocarbons, and debris enter watersheds and eventually find their way to coastal waters. This causes imbalances, including the condition known as eutrophication (the depletion of oxygen from the water), which in turn spurs algal blooms and kills fish. Eutrophication is prevalent the world over and is considered by many coastal ecologists to be the most serious threat to marine ecosystems. The problem is now notorious in the Chesapeake Bay, North Carolina’s Pamlico Sound, Santa Monica Bay, and other areas along the U.S. coast. Vast dead zones, the ultimate choking of life, are growing steadily larger in areas such as the Gulf of Mexico.

Toxins also exact a heavy toll on wildlife and ecosystems, and the persistent nature of these chemicals means recovery is often slow and sometimes incomplete. Diversion of freshwater from estuaries raises their salinity, rendering them unsuitable as habitat for the young of many marine species.

What is the resounding message from this complex suite of threats? We have to deal with all the sources of degradation simultaneously. Trying to regulate each source individually is too complicated, politically tenuous, and ultimately ineffective. Designating marine protected areas is the only comprehensive way to do it. Protected areas work to mitigate against degradation simply because they define a region on the receiving end of the threats. The reality is that it is possible to create sufficient public and political support to clean up sources of degradation only if a well-defined ocean area has been marked and shown to be suffering. People need a geographic zone to relate to a sense of place. Experience around the world shows that once an area is marked, people become focused and find the motivation to clean it up. These areas would become the starting points for finding solutions that could be applied to larger areas.

Occasionally, marine protected areas established to protect the critical habitats of a single highly endangered species can play a similar role. Such “umbrella” species can serve as the conservation hook for a comprehensive system that protects all life in the target waters. This is happening in newly established Leatherback Conservation Zones off the southeastern United States, designated to protect portions of leatherback sea turtle habitat. The hundreds of species that live on the sea floor and in the vertical column of water in these zones receive de facto protection. Similarly, scientists of the Chesapeake Research Consortium recently recommended that 10 percent of the Chesapeake Bay’s historic oyster habitat be protected in permanent reef sanctuaries. If that action is taken, other species in these areas would be protected as well.

Dealing with multiple threats and economic sectors is the business of coastal zone management. The United States prides itself on its coastal management, and in line with the new federalism, each of the 28 coastal states and territories has significant authority and funds to deal with all these issues. Yet there is little focus on integrating coastal management between federal and state jurisdictions, as well as between water and land jurisdictions. For example, state coastal management agencies rarely have any mandate to control fisheries within their three-mile jurisdictions and have virtually no ability to influence land use in the watershed along the coastline.

Marine protected areas would serve as control sites where scientific research, experimentation, and tests of management techniques could take place. Without such rigorous trials, management techniques will never become usefully adaptable. Lacking hard science, our attempts at flexible techniques are no more than hedged bets.

Testing the world’s waters

There are many good examples of marine protected areas that have successfully prevented overexploitation, mitigated habitat degradation, and served as models for integrated management. One frequently cited example is Australia’s Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, a vast multiple-use area encompassing the world’s largest barrier reef system. It is the first large marine protected area to succeed in accommodating various user groups by designating different internal zones for different uses, such as sponge fishing, oil exploration, diving, and recreational fishing. And indeed, the act of designating the region as a marine park has elevated its perceived value, drawing more public and political attention to protecting it.

The United States can learn from mistakes made there, too. Chief among them is that the boundary for the protected area stops at the shoreline, preventing the Park Authority from influencing land use in the watersheds that drain into the park’s waters. The consequence is that the reef is now experiencing die-back as sediments and land-based pollution stress the system.

Protected areas can boost marine life populations not only within reserves but outside them as well.

Guinea Bissau’s Bijagos Archipelago Biosphere Reserve in West Africa, by contrast, includes some control over adjacent land use. The reserve covers some 80 islands, the coastal areas in between, some offshore areas, and portions of the mainland, including major river deltas. As is true for all biosphere reserves designated by UNESCO, there are no-take areas delineated within core zones and areas of regulated activity in surrounding buffer zones. And now, as the national government creates a countrywide economic development plan, it is using the reserve map to help determine where to site factories and other potentially damaging industries, as well as attractive areas within the reserve that would promote ecotourism. Designation of the Bijagos Reserve is prompting the government of Guinea Bissau to protect its national treasure while providing incentives for West African governments to work toward protecting what is an important base for the marine life of the entire region.

The emerging efforts of coastal nations to protect marine resources and the livelihoods of people who depend on them have largely relied on top-down controls, in which government ministries take jurisdictional responsibility to plan and implement reserves. Such is the case in Europe, where there has been a great proliferation of marine protected areas in the last decade. France has established five fully operational marine reserves. Spain has decreed 21. Italy has established 16, of which 3 are fully functional, with another 7 proposed. Greece has one Marine National Park and plans to implement another, and Albania, Bosnia, and Croatia all have reserves.

Although each of these countries uses different criteria for site selection, all have acted to establish and enforce protected areas in relatively pristine coastal and insular regions. Each country has decided its that waters are vital to its national interests and has systematically analyzed them to identify the most sensitive areas. The United States has not even taken a systematic look at its waters, much less protected them.

In contrast to government-led efforts, some African marine protected areas and newly established community reserves in the Philippines and Indonesia are being driven by local communities and fishers’ groups. These bottom-up initiatives result from local conservation efforts that are then legitimized by government. An exciting example is the new community-based marine protected area in Blongko, North Sulawesi, Indonesia, the country’s first locally managed marine park.

The attempts of communities, local governments, and nations to leverage marine protected areas provide the United States with valuable means to learn. By not taking time to assess the experiences of others and by pretending to have all the answers, the United States lags way behind. The lack of commitment to make sacrifices today that will conserve the ocean environment of tomorrow highlights how hypocritical it is for the United States to preach that other nations make sacrifices of their own.

Systematic approach needed

To optimally protect whole ecosystems or to promote conservation, networks of reserves may be more effective than large, individually protected areas. A large part of the damage to marine systems stems from the degradation or loss of critical areas that are linked in various ways. For example, many species in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef spawn in a section of the reef near Brisbane, but recruits (or larvae) travel with ocean currents and settle 200 kilometers away before they settle. If the entire region could not be designated as a marine protected area, it would be much more valuable to protect these two spots, rather than random sections of the reef. In this way, a network of the most critical areas could protect an environment and perhaps be more politically tenable than a single large zone.

This patchwork pattern of life is seen around the world. Mangrove forests along Gulf of Mexico shores provide nutrients and nursery areas for offshore reefs that are tens of kilometers away. Seed reefs have recently been shown to provide recruits to mature reef systems hundreds of kilometers away. Recognizing this connectivity, scientists have begun to explore how extensive systems of small, discrete marine reserves can effectively combat biodiversity loss.

Networks of marine protected areas can achieve several of the major goals of marine protection, including preserving wilderness areas, resolving conflicts among users, and restoring degraded or overexploited areas. Networks are a very new idea, and none have been formally designated, but several promising plans are under way. Parks Canada is currently designing a system of Marine National Conservation Areas to represent each of the 29 distinct ecoregions of Canada’s Atlantic, Great Lakes, Pacific, and arctic coasts. The long-term goal is to establish protected wilderness areas covering habitat types within each region. Australia’s federal government is developing a strategy for a National Representative System to set aside portions of its many different habitats.

Networks would greatly aid conflict resolution among user groups or jurisdictional agencies, which is a problem in virtually all the world’s coastal and near-shore areas. Shipping and mineral extraction, for instance, conflict with recreation. Commercial and subsistence fishing conflict with skin- and scuba-diving and ecotourism. Designating a network of smaller protected areas can amount to zoning for different uses, which is much easier than trying to overlay regulations on one continuous reserve. The network can also provide each group of local communities, decisionmakers, and other stakeholders with their own defined arena in which to promote effective management, giving each group a sense of place and a focused goal.

By designating more smaller areas of protection, networks also provide manageable starting points for efforts to reverse degradation or overexploitation. Because a given area is smaller and would not have to attempt to provide solutions for different goals (such as recreation, overfishing, and pollution runoff), they would be up and running faster, speeding restoration. These starting points could then form the basis for more comprehensive management later. This is the underlying philosophy behind the effort of a group of scientists who have recently developed a systematic plan for marine protected areas in the Gulf of Maine. The group has mapped out some three dozen regions of ocean floor as the most important ones for protection against trawling and dredging. It is hoped that this baseline will serve as the foundation for future marine protected area designations in the region.

The time to commit is now

U.S. coastal areas are being spoiled, fisheries are in trouble, and the once great-wealth of natural capital is rapidly being spent. Yet the U.S. government has made no commitment to a systematic approach to protect the marine environment. With recent media attention on marine issues and increased advocacy and lobbying for reform, one might think that the government is ready to assume leadership in marine conservation. But there is no concrete evidence that this is so. Ironically, campaigning by environmental groups may be contributing to a hesitancy to consider marine protected areas. Many conservation groups have invested a lot of time and energy trying to convince consumers to dampen their demand for overexploited species. Campaigns to boycott certain fish, such as the Save the Swordfish campaign, are useful in putting a face (even if it is a fish face) on the issue of overexploitation, but they can also lure the public and decisionmakers into a dangerous complacency, believing that sacrificing their occasional swordfish meal will be enough.

Conservationists are not advocating fencing off the oceans and prohibiting use. The solution is to modify the way we manage marine resources and to use public awareness to help raise political will for taking responsibility for that. If we can couple consumer awareness and purchasing power with strong marine management, we could indeed alleviate many pressures on marine systems and allow their recovery.

Critical to this effort would be a real willingness among government agencies and decisionmakers to protect areas needed for fish spawning, feeding, migration, and other ecologically critical sites through marine reserves, as well as entering into enforceable international agreements to protect shared resources. This means not only talking about essential fish habitat, as has been done in the reauthorization of the U.S. Magnuson-Stevens Fisheries Conservation and Management Act, but also actually biting the bullet and setting aside strictly enforced marine protected areas that include no-take zones. If successful, the United States could finally set an example for the world.

Thus far, the United States has not even cataloged its coastal or offshore resources and habitats. This should be done immediately. As this is done, the government should designate marine protected areas systematically and look for networks of individual reserves that act to conserve the whole.

Designating an area as a marine park can elevate its perceived value, creating more public support for protecting it.

In terms of implementation, a dual track should be employed. The first track is strengthening the federal commitment by making sure that federal agencies recognize their responsibility to adequately protect the oceans and their commons. This requires getting beyond the hype and fluff of the Marine Sanctuaries Program, whose mandate is really only to create recreation areas, and into the hard work of designating ecologically critical areas that are off limits to some or all kinds of activities, and then dedicating adequate resources to surveillance and enforcement of these areas.

The second track is strengthening states’ commitments to protecting the shore and coastline, where the greatest sites of damage and sources of threats lie. This includes linking management of coastal waters with management of land along the coastline. Ultimately, federal and state authorities should integrate their work to create a comprehensive strategy that begins on land and in rivers, crosses the shoreline, and extends out to the deep sea.

Meanwhile, policy should empower local communities and user groups to help conserve resources. Communities in the San Juan Islands of Washington state are already moving in this direction by establishing citizen-run, volunteer no-take zones. The nation should learn from this example and make it possible for other communities to follow in its footsteps. Protected areas that are co-managed bring oceans and marine life into view as crucial parts of the national heritage, helping to overcome the out-of-sight, out-of-mind dilemma.

Without decisionmakers taking better responsibility for marine conservation and protection of the oceans, marine biodiversity the world over will be permanently compromised. We have an obligation to be stewards. It is also in the U.S. national interest to protect the natural resources within its borders in order to become less dependent on other countries, avoid the huge recuperation costs of damaged areas, protect fishing and other ocean industries, and preserve a way of life along the shores.

Though the lack of political will to protect the sea can be discouraging, the half-empty glass is, as always, also half full. The United States is lucky that its history of tinkering with the oceans is thus far brief, and it hasn’t had the time yet to establish entrenched bureaucracies and rigid systems of rules. It now has an opportunity that must not be wasted. If there was ever a time to go forward with a well-planned and executed system of marine reserves, it is now. It may well be that the future of Earth’s oceans will rest firmly on the shoulders of the new generation of marine protected areas.

Recommended Reading

  • T. Agardy, Marine Protected Areas and Ocean Conservation Austin, Tex.: R. E. Landes Publishers, Academic Press, 1997.
  • P. Dayton, S. Thrush, T. Agardy, and R. Hofman, “Environmental Effects of Marine Fishing” Aquatic Conservation in Marine Freshwater Ecosystems 5 (1995): 1­28.
  • A. Hastings and L. W. Botsford, “Equivalence in Yield from Marine Reserves and Traditional Fisheries Management,” Science 284 (May 28, 1999): 1537­1538.
  • S. Jennings and M. Kaiser, “The Effects of Fishing on Marine Ecosystems,” Advances in Marine Biology 34 (1998): 201­352.
  • T. Lauck, C. Clark, M. Mangel, and G. Munro, “Implementing the Precautionary Principle in Fisheries Management Through Marine Reserves,” Ecological Applications 8, no. 1, supplement (1998): S72­S78.
  • C. Roberts and N. Polunin, “Marine Reserves: Simple Solutions to Managing Complex Fisheries?” Ambio 22, no. 6 (1993): 364­368.
  • G. Russ and A. Alcala, “Do Marine Reserves Export Adult Fish Biomass? Evidence from Apo Island, Central Philippines,” Marine Ecology Progress Series 132 (1997): 1­9.
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Cite this Article

Agardy, Tundi. “Creating Havens for Marine Life.” Issues in Science and Technology 16, no. 1 (Fall 1999).

Vol. XVI, No. 1, Fall 1999