MPAs Only One Tool

July 29, 2003

You’ve probably been hearing a lot about the health of our oceans these days. Most of the news isn’t good. Declining sea life, pollution, overharvest of marine resources – the list goes on.

According to the recent Pew Ocean Commission report, pollution and poor natural resource management are the main causes for the trouble our oceans are in. This private group’s assessment will be followed later this year by a report from the U.S. Commission on Oceans Policy. This federal commission is charged with developing findings and making recommendations to the president and Congress for a coordinated and comprehensive national ocean policy. We suspect their findings will be similar to the Pew report.

One idea that’s getting a lot of attention is the creation of more Marine Protected Areas (MPAs). Whether they’re called protected areas, reserves or sanctuaries, the idea is usually the same: set aside sections of the ocean, close them to all fishing, and wait for the area to “recover.”

To a lot of folks, MPAs are an easy answer to a complex problem. But there are no more easy answers. We used those up a long time ago. Effective management requires more than simply locking up an area and throwing away the key.

One thing’s for certain, a blanket approach to creation of MPAs won’t work. MPAs are a tool, one of many available to better manage and conserve ocean resources. But they must be tailored to specific areas to address differences in habitat, currents, water conditions and other factors. If onshore pollution is damaging a particular part of Puget Sound, turning that spot into an MPA and closing it to fishing won’t do much good if the root cause of the problem isn’t addressed.

I heard about one spot off the West Coast where folks wanted to improve rockfish populations, so they set up a reserve and closed it to fishing. Years went by, but the population didn’t grow. That’s because the habitat set aside was great for adult rockfish, but not so good for young rockfish. Adult rockfish were gobbling up young rockfish at the first opportunity. Despite good intentions, the reserve did nothing to enhance rockfish populations.

Fishing closures aren’t a new management tool. We’ve long used them to help rebuild fish stocks by applying closures in specific areas, for specific lengths of time to reach specific goals.

What are we trying to achieve? How long does an area need to be set aside? Are we protecting the right area in the right way? These are some of the questions that must be answered before any place is considered for MPA status. We must all work together to identify problems and possible remedies. We must remember that creation of an MPA is not a goal in itself, but might be the means to reach a goal.

MPAs could end up being as dangerous to our oceans as all of the pollution and poor management practices combined. Passive management is cheap and simple. It’s easy to lock up an area for protection and feel good about doing that, while continuing to ignore most of the factors that created the problem in the first place.

We need to work together, using the best available science to develop recovery plans that may use MPAs – or any other tools at our disposal – to address the problems our oceans face. We need to do the hard work up front. The easy path leads only to fragmented ocean habitat and islands of fish in a dead sea.

Billy Frank Jr. is the chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission


For more information, contact: Steve Robinson or Tony Meyer (360) 438-1180