A Fish Tale

There is more than just fish in the sea.

It would be hard to know it from observing the progress of the Marine Life Protection Act in Northern California. Otherwise known as the MLPA, it is a multi-year process to redesign California’a nearly 100 state Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) into networks of protected marine habitats.

But those working to implement the MLPA along the North Central coast are so narrowly focused on fish they are missing the proverbial forest for the trees.

The MLPA is a forward thinking law passed by the California legislature in 1999 that mandates that our state system of MPAs be redesigned using principles of ecosystem management for our marine environment. The first two goals of the MLPA mandate that we “protect the natural diversity and abundance of marine life, and the structure, function, and integrity of marine ecosystems” and “help sustain, conserve, and protect marine life populations, including those of economic value, and rebuild those that are depleted.”

The MLPA process along the North Central Coast is making great progress towards protecting fish. The level of conflict and tension between conservationists and the fishing community appears to have been replaced by cooperation.

That’s great for the fish. But healthy marine ecosystems means more than protecting just fish. It also means protecting those species that feed on fish, like seabirds, whales, porpoises, sea lions and all marine habitats from the range of threats to their marine ecosystem – including shipping.

The three proposals for new MPAs that will be voted on this week have failed to do both.

After a record number of endangered whales were struck and killed by large vessels in California waters last fall, including a humpback in Pt. Reyes, and the cargo ship Cosco Busan crashed into the Bay Bridge last November coating Bay Area beaches and the ocean with about 58,000 gallons of bunker fuel, scientific advisors to the MLPA came up with a good idea. They proposed Vessel No Traffic Areas be created to address these very threats to vulnerable bird and mammal populations in the region.

But these protections have been marginalized. The Blue Ribbon Task Force, which will make its decision on which plan to propose to the Fish and Game Commission at its April 22nd and 23rd meeting, directed stakeholders to severely limit the use of these areas, also called Special Closures, regardless of the scientific data or the mandate by the MLPA to protect these species and areas.

While Vessel No Traffic Areas are a good first step they are far too small to adequately protect the Farallon Islands, Fitzgerald and Pt. Reyes from the approximately 3,600 large cargo vessels and oil supertankers entering San Francisco Bay every year virtually unregulated by the US Coast Guard. These jewels of our coastline lie in or near shipping lanes leading into the rapidly growing Port of Oakland, already the 4th largest in the US.

The Cosco Busan tragedy has yet to teach many of those planning the new MPA network a lesson. How well will these crown jewels of our new MPA network be protected from the 732 potential Exxon Valdez oil tankers entering the Bay every year with an estimated 400 million gallons of fuel in their holds?

The scientists working to advise the MLPA process need to be heeded. Otherwise harbor porpoises and threatened and endangered seabird and coastal bird species such as marbled murrelets, gray whales and humpback whales will remain completely unprotected.

Additional protections from vessel traffic would not just protect birds, porpoises and whales but also the very fish that is the narrow focus of the current planning process as well as the many people who use our coastal waters.

In fact, we still have no information about the value of non-extractive uses of the ocean to the California economy. A planned study of the lucrative economic contributions of surfing, diving, snorkeling, coastal trail hiking, bird and whale watching, swimming and even beach visits has yet to be done.

Without protecting all the vulnerable threatened and endangered species of marine birds and mammals and addressing the threat of large vessels using our Yosemites on the Sea as on-ramps to the global economy the MLPA will fail to truly protect the entire marine ecosystem as the California legislature intended.

ROBERT OVETZ, Ph.D. is executive director of Seaflow, a marine conservation organization based in Sausalito. See www.seaflow.org and www.vesselwatchproject.org for more information.