A study conducted and published by Scripps Institution of Oceanography has found that the seven-year-old network of underwater parks off the shores of the United States are producing positive results and fish populations have grown significantly in these parks.
There are now 124 marine protected areas (MPAs) covering 852 square miles, or 16 percent of California state waters. Initial monitoring results show more and bigger fish, especially in older MPAs where the benefits of limiting fishing have had longer to accrue.
As MPAs have become more popular to help sustain fisheries and the extinction of countless species, there have been increasing concerns of “paper parks” where the MPAs are not protected at all. For example, under European Union law, coastal states are obliged to create MPAs to protect specific species or habitats. Given that, a new report published by WWF found that only 1.8% of Europe’s seas are covered by marine protected areas that have management plans, essentially leaving the majority of these the areas unprotected.
This makes the revelation that California’s MPAs have been a success an extremely encouraging sign for future parks in the US moving forward. Scripps researchers Samantha Murray explained that the protected areas are designed to create a safe habitat where fisherman are prevented from poaching fish.
“So there are marine protected areas all over the world,” Murray said. “And there are loads of studies that show when you set aside areas underwater and just sort of leave them to nature. And let the wildlife and habitat inside, enjoy more of a natural state that we see bigger fish. More fish. Fish that are more resistant to stressors like starvation and oceanographic changes and sometimes we even see those fish spillover and replenish populations outside of protected areas.”California has done a good job of monitoring its 850 square miles of underwater parks, according to Murray.
The two most important parts of a successful MPA are ensuring their protection from illegal activities and fishing as well as helping the public understand the importance and reasoning why an area has been deemed a MPA.
“If we can’t make sure people are following the rules the marine protected area isn’t going to be successful,” Murray said. “And California is investing, the state legislature is investing in making sure that enforcement is getting better all the time.”
Research performed by Murray and Tyler Hee of environmental law firm DeLano found evidence of rebounding ecosystem health in several of the parks, ranging from an increase of commercially important fish species such as lingcod and black rockfish in the state’s central coast to a 52-percent increase of biomass – or total marine life – in reserves off the Channel Islands. Significantly, ocean waters just outside those reserves also experienced a 23-percent increase in biomass.
Outside of ensuring the protection of the animals that reside here, researchers and scientist are using these parks to better understand life under the sea and how to better help protect them. Current projects going on in California’s protected waters include:
- Scientists are using the MPA network to study climate change impacts on the ocean and sustainable fisheries.
- Recreational anglers catch and tag fish inside and outside MPAs to study the results of marine protections.
- Mobile apps tell fishermen where the MPAs are and emerging technologies are being used to help identify poaching hotspots.
- State, local, and federal agencies consider MPAs in evaluating coastal development projects.
- The state legislature has passed two laws to bolster MPA enforcement efforts.
- School groups engage in citizen science projects to survey beach and intertidal habitats.