Offshore of Cascade Head. Photo courtesy of Ben Nieves.Marine Reserves in Oregon in 2010
Over the course of 2010, Oregon’s process to establish a system of marine reserves and protected areas has been managed by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife which has helped guide the work of three community teams for the Cape Perpetua, Cascade Head and Cape Falcon areas. In November, those three teams reported out a set of site recommendations, which are moving forward through the rest of the state’s process -- an agency review, review by the Ocean Policy Advisory Council (OPAC), then consideration by the Governor and the Oregon Legislature.
Maps and descriptions for each of the community team's site proposals can be found on the ODFW website.
How Oregon Shores is Supporting Marine Reserves
Oregon Shores efforts on marine reserves are guided by its March, 2001 Position Statement, prepared by Dr. Bayard H. McConnaughey, who was a professor of Zoology at the University of Oregon and for many years a dedicated member of Oregon Shores’ board.
The Science of Marine Reserves
Marine Reserves have been used effectively in many places around the world as a management tool to protect complete ecosystems, including biotic (plants and animals) and abiotic (rocks, sand, water) components, so that habitats are restored and fish and other sea creatures can return to naturally abundant levels, helping to restock the surrounding waters.
As of 2006, at least 4,500 "marine protected areas" (MPAs) existed worldwide. They cover some 849,000 square miles, or approximately 0.6 percent of the ocean. Of all those MPAs, only a small number are "marine reserves", which receive complete and permanent protection. Less than 13,900 square miles of the ocean, or 0.01 percent, is currently protected in marine reserves.
Scientists have studied more than 124 marine reserves around the world and monitored biological changes inside the reserves. In 2007, the Partnership for Interdisciplinary Studies of Coastal Oceans (PISCO) reviewed these studies and produced a report, The Science of Marine Reserves, that summarizes the latest scientific information about marine reserves, including case studies from the United States. Broadly stated, the scientific evidence shows that marine reserves usually boost the abundance, diversity and size of most marine species living within their borders.
In Oregon, we’re fortunate to have a PISCO office located on the Oregon State University campus and a host of resident expert scientists to help us answer questions (not to mention the network of scientists from other states and countries available to us), as Oregon works to establish its own system of reserves along our coastline. Oregon is also fortunate to have “The Science of Marine Reserves” booklet updated in 2007, at a time when our state is actively considering marine reserves for our nearshore ocean. It provides an excellent, up-to-date “tutorial” for anyone interested in increasing their knowledge and understanding about this important management tool. It includes beautiful illustrations, easy to understand charts and graphs and provides examples of ocean conditions and species that are very relevant to Oregon.
The Need for Marine Reserves
As Oregon considers whether marine reserves would benefit our nearshore ocean, many are asking, “Why marine reserves, and is there a need for them?” Here are a number of responses to that question:
1. Protect big old fat fertile female fish, or “BOFFFs,” and other marine creatures that benefit from protection of old-growth age structure.
Marine reserves can help protect old-growth age structures that are vital to so many species, including a number of groundfish species found off the coast of Oregon. Some groundfish, for example, live 50 to 100 years and don’t mature and produce abundant eggs until they are decades old.
A big old fat fertile female fish produces many more eggs than a young female fish. Further, the eggs of the BOFFF contain a significantly larger oil sac of nutrition which allows the newly hatched young to survive as they are adrift in the big, inhospitable ocean environment during those first few weeks when they are most vulnerable. Marine reserves serve as a way to set aside “nurseries” where the big females can safely mature and produce lots of healthy babies that will help to reseed the ocean.
Gear and time restrictions don’t adequately help protect BOFFFs because BOFFFs are usually the first fish to be caught. In many cases, the use of “catch and release” doesn’t work to protect BOFFFs. Rockfish suffer from a condition known as “barotrauma,” which involves an expansion of gases in their swim bladders, and the fish often suffer from an embolism when they are brought up from depths. In barotrauma, the swim bladder expands and forces the stomach out the mouth and the intestines out the anus. Many fish die as a result of barotrauma or the secondary impacts from infection or predation. Studies on techniques to quickly return fish to depths have been limited, and long-term health and behavioral deficits from frequent, and sometimes severe barotrauma-related internal injuries are unknown. For this reason, a strategy of releasing rockfish species that are undersized or are prohibited under fishing regulations is not viable for protection of BOFFFs that need to mature for decades to be productive.
2. Protect habitat structures on the bottom and on rocky outcrops.
Marine reserves can protect bottom habitats from damage due to dragging of trawl gear. State and federal fisheries management agencies, as well as the trawl industry itself, have made changes in recent years to trawl gear itself to reduce impacts, and steps have been taken to limited areas open to certain trawling activities. In combination, these steps have served to keep nets off of the most sensitive rocky reefs and to stop future expansion of areas that are trawled in federal waters. But a recent study off of Oregon’s coast shows that trawling on a mud bottom also impacts habitat and sea life, including groundfish species.
Even in areas where trawl gear changes are being implemented, or where trawling no longer is occurring, if other types of fishing are still allowed, big old fat female fish are likely not adequately protected. Marine reserves provide a way to protect habitat and old-growth structure at the same time. Over the long term, this will provide benefits for all.
3. Protect against boom/bust cycles.
In addition to the natural boom/bust cycles over which humans have little control, boom and busts occurs with harvest of ocean resources. For example, the scallop dredge fishery off of Oregon in the late 1980s, was put in place before sustainable yields could be established, and that stock was depleted and has not recovered. If a system of marine reserves had been in place, to protect key ecosystems such as key scallop areas, Oregon would may have had some scallop beds held “in reserve” and we may have experienced recovery similar to that on the Georges Banks where reserves serve to protect scallops, which responded by increases in number, size and larval export of young scallops.
Another example is sea urchins. Sea urchins are harvested, processed and packed in Oregon and shipped to Japan. Commercial sea urchin harvest began in Oregon at Port Orford in 1986. Landings quickly escalated and peaked at 9.3 million pounds in 1994. Since 1996, the urchin fishery has maintained only a fraction of its previous landings … for instance, 494,000 pounds were landed in 2005. Marine reserves established to protect a set of key marine ecosystems may have had significant value because marine reserves conserve old-growth age structure (just like in rockfishes). Sea urchins have very sporadic recruitment – with many poor years and occasional good years. When you protect old-growth age structure, this is thought of as “storage effect” whereby older adults (if protected) outlive longer poor periods, repeatedly spawning until a good recruitment year comes along.
Decline of populations of six species of West Coast rockfish, 1960 - 2000.4. Provide a “cushion” against mistakes when adequate data is lacking.
NOAA Fisheries graph.
In state waters, we don't know enough about the status of the ocean ecosystems, as exemplified by the few fish stock assessments that have been completed. Only eight of 42 species of groundfish have been assessed, and two of those eight species have been found to be depleted (at a level of less than 25 percent of the unfished biomass.) When one considers that some of these species like the quillback may live to nearly 100 years, taking a precautionary approach is the only conservation strategy that makes sense in the face of such uncertainty.
We know so little about targeted species, let alone species that are not harvested commercially or recreationally. On land, we consider these as “non-game” species and there is increasingly strong support for their protection. Just because species are not harvested does not mean they are not important. They are important to all the people of Oregon, and they are particularly important to future generations who will inherit what we have left for them. They are important as part of the natural ocean communities -- the ecological systems – that support and include the groundfish and other fish that are targeted for harvest. These “non-game” species are important to fishermen and coastal communities on land that depend on preserving the integrity of ocean ecosystems to support the bounty of Oregon’s nearshore environment into the future.
5. Protect when you don’t have adequate funding certainty.
Areas of intact ocean ecosystems held “in reserve” can help protect like a savings account, against funding and research uncertainties. (Funding uncertainties are certain, it is the funds that are uncertain, given the one- and two-year funding cycles that are part of federal and state appropriations processes for ocean management agencies).
Here is an example to illustrate how funding uncertainties can affect a program and the management of a marine resource. In past decades, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) had an active shellfish program to monitor and manage these fisheries. A decline in funding over the past decade resulted in severe staffing and program cutbacks in sport shellfish management, leading to elimination of this program. Recent management of these recreational shellfish fisheries has depended on bag limits and gear restrictions developed in the 1960s and 1970s, with no substantive monitoring of the fisheries or status of the shellfish stocks. In 2003, the legislature enacted a new sport shellfish license with revenues dedicated to enhance programming in enforcement, public health, management and research. This funding source has provided staff and some funding to help revitalize the shellfish program.
6. Provide resilience against big-picture problems, such as ocean warming and acidification.
Beyond the benefits of protecting habitat, stopping bycatch and preserving old-age structure, marine reserves hold promise for addressing some of the Earth’s greater problems. The simple fact is that relatively intact ecosystems are more resilient than systems that have been altered by human activities. Resilience refers to the ability of an ecosystem to resist severe change in the face of external perturbations. As such, marine reserves could provide an important tool for “banking” areas of resilience as society begins to adjust the uses and management of its natural resources to meet the challenges and changes that are coming with global warming and related impacts.
7. Protect fully-intact ecosystems.
Even if we had secure funding sources and better data about all aspects of our ocean, ecosystems are so complex that we may never be able to fully understand the interconnections between the hundreds of species that evolved together over time in the marine environment. If you pull one thread from the web of life, it impacts another, which in turn impacts another until you are faced with a serious unraveling.
Marine reserves are a simple, effective way of protecting fully-intact ecosystems, and we don’t have to know how each system works before we do this. Generally, we have to know where some of the key ecosystems are and determine how much of each ecosystem we need to put “in reserve” to sustain our ocean for generations to come.
This concept of protecting intact ecosystems is accepted by managers and decisions makers for terrestrial systems, and it is just as relevant to implement such protections in our ocean environment. The time has come to take these steps for Oregon’s ocean.
8. Provide an “intrinsic” sense of knowing, for all Oregonians, that part of our ocean has been set aside for its pure wilderness values.
Whatever your personal views are about creation, humans can’t outsmart God, Mother Nature or millions of years of evolution. There is nothing wrong with setting aside areas to leave them just as nature made them. As Edward Abbey stated, “The idea of wilderness needs no defense, it only needs defenders.”
9. Answer questions through research as “control” areas.
As we experiment in our ocean with new developmental fisheries, with regulations, with fishing gear and with time and area restrictions, marine reserves, which receive no extractive impacts, can serve as “reference” or “control” areas to see what the impacts are when fishing and other human impacts are introduced in nearby areas.They can serve as living labs against which we can observe and compare effects of human-caused changes.
10. Serve coastal fishing communities as a “place-based” tool to protect key habitat and marine resources that are essential to the effort of their own local fishing fleet.
An example of a community considering the use marine protected areas, including marine reserves, to serve local needs and goals is the Port Orford Ocean Resource Team, or POORT, out of Port Orford, Oregon. This community-based effort is conducting research, planning and outreach efforts of their own planning. They are involving conservation, fishing, civic and other stakeholders in that process. ODFW is to be applauded for providing staff assistance to this community-based effort. More innovative approaches like this should be encouraged.
11. Protect key areas of the ocean from future ocean development projects.
In Oregon, a number of preliminary permits for wave energy development projects have been approved by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC, in recent months, and wave energy is on its way to Oregon. Just about all a developer has to do is identify, by longitude or latitude where the company would like to build a wave energy project and submit that to the FERC to get the permitting process rolling. The FERC has authority to approve the projects, and until Oregon completes a comprehensive “place-based” assessment of its ocean to know where key sites are located for habitat and ecosystem protection, navigation channels and recreation and commercial fishing, Oregon’s ocean is vulnerable to decisions by the FERC.
Identifying key marine ecosystems and protecting them in a system of marine reserves, could help protect important habitats, including spawning and rearing sites, against future development such as wave energy, aquaculture, oil and gas drilling and who knows what other industries the future may bring.
12. Provide an Oregon-made solution before others push for a federal designation by Congress.
Marine reserves are a tool that can be “Made in Oregon” as opposed to the use of a federal tool, such as the National Marine Sanctuary Act, which, ultimately, could involve a greater federal involvement in management of the site. Oregonians have the opportunity right now to determine where marine reserves should be located and how they should be managed.
13. Implement “Goal 19” in Oregon’s ocean.
Under Oregon’s Statewide Planning Goals and Guidelines, Oregon’s ocean is to be managed under Goal 19, the “Ocean Goal,” which states, “To carry out this goal, all actions by local, state and federal agencies that are likely to affect the ocean resources and uses of Oregon’s territorial sea shall be developed and conducted to conserve marine resources and ecological functions for the purpose of providing long-term ecological, economic and social values and benefits and to give higher priority to protection of renewable marine resources i.e. living marine organisms – than to the development of non-renewable ocean resources.”
Oregon’s Ocean Policy Advisory Council, in 2002 recommended “establishing a limited system of marine reserves” to help meet the conservation objectives of Goal 19.
14. Continue Oregon’s stewardship legacy from our lands into the sea.
Oregon should continue the stewardship tradition of Oz West, Tom McCall and Sam Boardman by extending a system of protected areas from the land into the sea. Under their leadership, through enactment of Oregon’s Beach Bill and establishment of our coastal state parks system, our predecessors have assured that, “In Oregon the beaches belong to the people,” and that unique coastal landscapes and resources are held securely in public trust for future generations. It is now time to extend that planning and protection effort into Oregon’s ocean to assure that key resource values there are preserved in perpetuity.