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In the zone: scientist believe marine reserves, or no-take zones, are key to replenishing dwindling fish populations and restoring damaged habitat. The success of a reserve at Channel Islands proves the point. Reserves are part of a growing trend in the national parks.

With a whir and a rush of bubbles, the three television screens in a small visitor center above the landing cove at Anacapa Island are filled with the face of a diver, National Park Service ranger Bill Faulkner.

As he sinks lower into the water, the camera moves away from Faulkner. Its idle gaze captures fronds of kelp, light brown and vivid green, their endless undulations carrying them toward the sunlight. An orange damsel fish performs a pirouette, and red sea urchins litter the floor of the cove like coins in a fountain, as white dots of plankton whirl like animated confetti.

Then, through the microphone attached to his face mask, Bill Faulkner addresses his audience: "It's like the rainforest of the marine environment."

What Faulkner is showing and what his audience, 150 strong on this cloudy, mid-summer afternoon, is seeing is a small aquatic showpiece: a recovering seascape in an area that is mostly suffering from the effects of overfishing and pollution. Well beyond the picture that appears in the television screen is a seascape of decimated kelp forests, disappearing fish populations, and a species of abalone that has come close to extinction. But up close just off Anacapa Island are 37 acres of submerged land that have since 1976 been protected from any type of fishing or resource removal.

This healthy picture provides a vivid demonstration of why no-take zones--areas where no sea life can be taken or harmed--are crucial to the success of reestablishing healthy populations of sea creatures and their habitat.

"[Anacapa Island] has been so successful," Faulkner tells ills live above-water audience, "we are copying it off the other islands."

Anacapa is the most easterly of the group of islands that form Channel Islands National Park, which is 20 to 30 miles south of Santa Barbara off the southern California coast at an unmarked junction for warm and cold ocean currents. Channel Islands has been called the North American Galapagos by the National Park Service, for both the abundance and uniqueness of its wildlife. Of the more than 2,000 terrestrial plant and animal species that make their home in Channel Islands, 145 are found nowhere else in the world.

Last year, the California Fish and Game Commission agreed to extend the protection to a network of ten reserves around each of the five Channel Islands in the park--totaling 175 square miles, the largest marine reserve off the west coast of the United States.

This move is part of a growing trend in the national parks, one that is both embraced and resisted. Even though most people recognize that the marine environment is in a bad way--name a fin- or shellfish that regularly appears on restaurant menus and behind iced supermarket counters, and nearly every one is suffering from dwindling numbers--not everyone agrees that no-take zones are the panacea. Some states resist them because of disagreements over jurisdiction, and some recreational and commercial fishermen are not convinced that their immediate deprivation will provide a payoff in the future.

Even so, long-term research has shown that no-take zones benefit fish and those who catch them. In an area where the lobster population has otherwise been almost fished out, Channel Islands park ranger Dave Stoltz offers this description of Anacapa Island's 27-year-old preserve. "I've probably dived around here as much as anyone I know. In any other area, you might see an antenna in a hole. In this [no-take zone] landing area, they almost walk out to you."

No-take zones are now in place at these sites within the National Park System: Channel Islands National Park, and Virgin Islands Coral Reefs and Buck Island Reef national monuments. Dry Tortugas has been proposed by the Park Service, but the state of Florida is still contesting it.

Although enforcing these zones has at times been contentious--and at least one no-take zone triggered a General Accounting Office investigation--few can dispute the benefits after looking at where the marine environment was at Channel Islands more than two decades ago. When the Anacapa Island no-take zone was established, the waters off Channel Islands showed the effects of an ecosystem thrown out of whack by overfishing, pollution, and some natural events brought on by El Nino. Fish species, such as cow rockfish and boccacio, were hard hit by fishing at unsustainable rates, a decline that affected not only the marine environment but terrestrial creatures that relied on fish for food, such as the bald eagle.

A dwindling sea otter population--caused by overhunting in the early years of the last century--led to a rise in the number of purple sea urchins, a population increase exacerbated by the culling of sheepshead and lobster. The purple urchins, it seems, loved to dine on the kelp that provided both shelter and food for fish--whose numbers were already declining as commercial and recreational fishermen, outfitted with the most modern technology and equipment, increased the size of their catches. So, too, went the more benign red sea urchin. The already struggling kelp forest was dealt a near mortal blow when water temperatures--warmed by El Nino--went up from the normal 57 to 65 degrees Fahrenheit to a tropical 75.

"The kelp just melted away," says Dave Stoltz.

The formerly rich ecosystem was replaced by what marine scientist Gary Davis described as "monocultures" of purple sea urchins, brittle starfish, or sea cucumbers. At their peak, these monocultures encompassed 450,000 sea urchins per acre.

The 20-year crash in fish populations and the disappearance of 80 percent of the kelp forest at Channel Islands National Park precipitated a debate in 1980 among the Park Service, the California Fish and Game Commission, and local commercial and recreational fishermen--one that would eventually lead to the expansion of the marine reserve at the park.

Although overfishing is widely recognized as a problem, national parks have traditionally had little say in how a park's waters or adjacent areas are fished, because jurisdiction over these areas typically falls to a state or another authority.

In the Caribbean, it took a two-year investigation by the General Accounting Office (GAO), the investigative arm of Congress, to verify that the federal government had jurisdiction over Virgin Islands Coral Reef National Monument, adjacent to submerged lands that are part of Virgin Islands National Park, and nearby Buck Island Reef National Monument. The two sites, totaling 32,900 acres, were established by presidential proclamation in January 2001 to protect a three-mile preservation area for coral reef, seagrass, and marine life.

The proclamation was challenged by Donna Christian-Christensen (D), the Virgin Islands delegate to Congress, who claimed the underwater areas were owned by the territory.

In Dry Tortugas and Biscayne national parks, the state of Florida has thrown up a roadblock. Dry Tortugas encompasses seven islands and 64,700 acres of submerged lands, which include the largest Jiving coral reef in North America. The reef provides a breeding ground for sea turtles, and more than 100 varieties of fish have been spotted there. Seventy miles west off Key West, the park lies in the Florida Straits and contains Garden Key, site of Fort Jefferson. Commercial fishing has been off limits since 1935, when it was designated Fort Jefferson National Monument. Sport spearfishing ended in 1960, and take of conch and lobster was stopped in 1974.

In July 2001, Dry Tortugas National Park designated 42 percent of its waterways as a Research Natural Area, effectively creating a no-take zone. This 46-square-mile zone would be off limits to fishing as well as any form of consumptive use, including research, according to public information officer Rick Cook.

Although the declaration was made more than two years ago, the state of Florida has resisted, claiming ownership of the submerged lands. "It's a conversation between their lawyers and our lawyers," Cook says.

To the north, 181,000-acre Biscayne National Park, which is 95 percent marine, faces opposition from the same source, but for what Rick Clark, its chief of resources management, believes are for more pragmatic reasons.

"There's a thought that enforcement is an issue," Clark admits. "We just don't have enough people to enforce the regulations that are on the books now. So there seems to be a perception that size limits are unenforceable."

Mary Munson, NPCA's director of the Sun Coast region, disagrees, saying that the state of Florida is the obstacle. "Florida seems to be bowing to a small but vocal part of the fishing industry" that mistakenly questions the benefits of reserves and refuses to consider protected areas to save fish stocks. Because the state shares jurisdiction for fisheries management in the park, the park manager's hands are tied."

But there is hope, says Munson. "Marine reserves are not just about saving fish," she says. "They can be established to protect entire undersea communities, such as coral reefs, from destructive activities. Because the state of Florida has a mandate to protect its reefs, we hope it might relent and support no-take zones in coral reef areas, despite opposition from some fishermen."

The alternative, Munson says, would be apparent to any snorkel or scuba diver. "In a lot of the coral reef habitat, you are seeing the destruction of the fish and the reefs from fishing lines, anchors, and even divers walking on it."

Jim Tilmant, the Fisheries Program Leader for the National Park Service's water resources division, can reel off the threatened species of reef fish: "grouper, grunts, snapper--they're all in trouble."

Although overfishing is an obvious cause, Tilmant says a traditional Park Service philosophy that treats marine resources differently from their terrestrial counterparts contributes to the problem.

"The big issue in my mind is that as we've moved into the marine environment, we haven't given these areas the same level of protection and conservation as we have terrestrial parks," Tilmant says. For instance, he says, the Park Service historically allowed fishing, and partly because of this the agency is having some difficulty applying its conservation and protection ethic to the marine world.

To address this issue, Tilmant believes the Park Service must look within and reassess its 87-year-old rules and culture. "If we are to have national parks that are marine, we have to have another set of criteria to protect those resources."
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Author:Wright, Gerard
Publication:National Parks
Date:Nov 1, 2003
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