Ocean Sanctuaries Are a Boon for Fish, Seabirds, and Marine Mammals
A chain of more than 100 Marine Protected Areas offer a safe haven for creatures from albatrosses to whales along California's 1,100-mile coastline.
During the spring breeding season, Brandt's cormorants and common murres pack tightly together, forming salt-and-pepper-hued blankets of nesting colonies, tens of thousands of birds thick. "It's spectacular, especially on islands like [Castle Rock], where full hillsides are completely covered," says Strong. From a distance, he says, "you feel like you're looking at a busy street, or a concert of people. You forget, looking through a scope, how small the birds are."
For the rest of the year, seabirds are less visible to us, with islands like Castle Rock quieting down like resort towns in the off-season. The birds spend the majority of their lives at sea, linked to land only long enough to raise their young. "If they could hatch eggs on the water surface, they'd never touch land," says Jensen. "The choke point in their survival is their ability to come onto land and be undisturbed, have their young, and then get back out onto the ocean."
Seabirds are inextricably linked to the marine ecosystem; they're near the top of the food chain, consuming 20 percent to 30 percent of pelagic fish production. Although they don't provide direct services to humans, their role as ecological sentinels is clear. "They're like a smoke detector," says Jensen.
Periodically fish populations will falter or crash for reasons that aren't well understood, and seabirds mirror these changes. In 2009, on Southeast Farallon Island near San Francisco, Brandt's cormorants had the lowest breeding population ever recorded there, according to a 2010 report by nonprofit PRBO Conservation Science. It concluded that depleted numbers of anchovies and other forage-fish species led to the low breeding success of Brandt's cormorants and common murres. A 2006 study by University of California-Berkeley researchers attributed the declining populations of marbled murrelets to the collapse of Pacific sardine fisheries in the late 1940s and the depletion of other central California fisheries. That, in turn, led murrelets to fish lower on the food web and hindered their reproductive success.
The northern fisheries I'm visiting are considered relatively healthy compared with those on the Southern California coast, where development and fishing pressures are much higher. Some fishermen argue that fish stocks are flourishing in Northern California waters and that the MLPA regulations are unnecessary. Long-term data are limited, but the area is home to several National Marine Fisheries Service "species of concern"--species whose numbers are reduced but for which there's too little information to list as threatened or endangered--such as bocaccio, yelloweye, and canary rockfish.
On the north coast, fishing for some species is already restricted to May through mid-September. Foul, unpredictable weather further limits the number of viable fishing days. So it's natural that additional restrictions would cause friction, especially given that the process required people with competing interests--commercial and recreational fishermen, Native Americans, scientists, and conservationists--to agree on which areas should be protected.
After months of discussion and compromise, they came to an agreement. In late 2010 all 31 stakeholders, as well as the team of 21 scientists, supported the plan. In the final scheme, 5 percent of the north coast region has complete protection and 12 percent has partial protection, with limited fishing, including in some key rockfish habitat. The proposal was adopted, unchanged, by the state, and the regulations will take effect in early 2013.
The regulations establish special closures, such as 300-foot protective ribbons to minimize disturbance to critical areas for seabirds and mammals, including the threatened Steller sea lion. Seabirds spook easily, and when they're disturbed by boats or by humans clamoring about, they often desert their nests, leaving chicks vulnerable to predatory birds like gulls. "When we came up with the final arrays [of refuges], we ran the numbers for protection with and without the special closures," says Jensen. The addition of seven special closures, including Castle Rock, created an "incredible dynamic leap in net protection" for seabirds, he says.
Some species, like common murres, need all the help they can get. In the 1980s the use of gillnets--drift nets used to catch a range of fish, including salmon--ravaged the bird's populations globally and particularly on the California coast. The United States eventually adopted a gillnet ban in continental shelf waters. Now rising numbers of bald eagles pose a threat. In the past decade they've begun invading colonies. When eagles land, parents typically fly away, abandoning their eggs. Often it's too late for them to lay more. "So the eagles wipe out their reproductive capacity," says Strong. "It looks really bad for murres. The effect is spreading down the coast."
Local fishermen who weren't involved in the MLPA process are largely hostile toward any more regulations. "The more they restrict [fishing], the less people are gonna come," says Bob Ginocchio, a 70-year-old charter boat owner, of commercial and sports fishermen. But those who helped craft the agreement are more hopeful that it strikes a balance between economics and conservation. Having people like Jensen at the table made a difference in the negotiation process and brought about some very practical measures, like special closures, says Larry Knowles, owner of Rising Tide Sea Vegetables, a commercial seaweed business based in Mendocino. "To me [special closures are] a very rational approach to management," he says.