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Sanctuary at sea.

A proposal by Channel Islands National Park may allow marine life in California's overfished waters to replenish itself.

CHANNEL ISLANDS National Park, off the coast of southern California, is an uncommon place, starkly beautiful and rich in natural resources. A unique combination of latitude, water currents, and terrain has created a biologically diverse marine environment, one that scientists consider among the most important in the country.

The islands--actually peaks of extensive offshore ridges--are in the Southern California Bight, an area south of Point Conception where the mainland coast curves to the east. It is a climatic transition zone, where two major biogeographic coastal provinces intersect, and species from both northern and southern waters overlap. Two coastal currents collide here as well. The cold-water California Current and the warmer Southern California Counter Current converage to create a periodic upwelling of nutrient-laden water that fosters exceptionally high production of phytoplankton and other plant growth.

More than 800 species of plants and animals are year-round or transient residents of the park's 250,000 acres, including many that are listed as endangered by either the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or the California Department of Fish and Game.

At least 33 species of marine mammals, including 27 species of whales and dolphins and six species of seals and sea lions, can be found in the park. Endangered whales that are occasionally spotted include Pacific right, sperm, finback, sei, humpback, blue, and gray. The park is home to one of the largest pinniped populations in the world and the only remaining pinniped rookery in Southern California. About 100,000 seals and sea lions produce nearly 15,000 pups here each year. More than 200 kinds of fish--about 44 percent of all species reported in California's coastal waters--can be found in the waters that surround the park, along with 40 percent of the kelp in Southern California, representing some of the most highly developed submarine forests in the world.

In addition, the park boasts one of the most abundant and diverse collections of marine birds in the United States--64 species are regular visitors and 11 species have established breeding colonies, including the only one in California of the endangered brown pelican. Other endangered terrestrial birds that have been spotted on the islands include California condors, peregrine falcons, and bald eagles. And four endangered plant species can be found here: island barberry, Santa Cruz island bush mallow and silver lotus, and Santa Barbara live-forever.

Although Channel Islands National Park may seem an idyllic sanctuary, beneath the surface a crisis is brewing. Whereas marine mammals are protected by virtue of the Marine Mammals Protection Act, fin fish, crustaceans, and kelp are not, and commercial interests, along with confusing administrative boundaries, threaten to interfere with the natural order of the park and its inhabitants.

In an attempt to protect all of the park's resources, scientists are proposing a new and relatively untried method of fisheries management. Gary E. Davis, a marine biologist at Channel Islands, would like to set aside portions of the park waters as marine refugia, or zones of replenishment. The term "refugia" refers to the scattered pockets of terrain left untouched by the frozen fingers of glacial ice that scoured the Earth two million years ago. As the glaciers retreated, the Earth was repopulated by the plants and animals that emerged from the refugia.

In the marine refugia Davis envisions, all harvesting would be prohibited. Marine animals and plants would live and grow unmolested, reaching a balance of natural densities and sizes. With reproduction at optimum rates, the excess populations would move outside the refugia boundaries, filling the adjacent harvest zones.

Channel Islands National Park, which consists of five islands and waters one mile from their shores, is close to the most heavily urbanized area on the West Coast--Oxnard, a suburb of Los Angeles, is just 11 miles from Anacapa, the easternmost island in the chain. The fertile park waters have spawned burgeoning commercial and recreational fishing industries, which are regulated by the state of California, not the National Park Service. Overfishing threatens several commercially important fisheries including abalone, which is near collapse. "It's a desperate situation," says Russ Butcher, NPCA's Pacific Southwest regional director. "The waters around a national park seem to be a natural place to begin to look at protective management alternatives."

Fifteen percent of the coastal fish caught commercially for the entire state are taken from inside park boundaries, an area that makes up just 3 percent of California's coastal waters. Traditional fisheries management programs control harvesting with limits on catch, animal size, gear, and seasonal closures and do not work for most species, Davis says. For instance, the California abalone catch has declined from a high in the 1960s of 2,000 tons a year to 200 tons a year today. In some areas of the park, abalone density has declined from an optimum of 15,000 per acre needed to sustain reproduction to just 15 per acre. Because abalone are broadcast spawners--males and females release clouds of sperm and eggs independently of each other and fertilization occurs by chance in the water--they must be near each other to reproduce.

In the 1970s, many of the commercial abalone harvesters switched to hauling sea urchins, once considered a nuisance species. The value of the sea urchin catch--primarily for export to the Far East--rose in proportion to the abalone's precipitous fall. The sea urchin population appears stable for now, but increased pressure on urchins as the abalone catch continues to decline could lead to a similar problem with this species. Throughout history, over-harvesting has prevailed in the commercial fishing industry. As one cash-producing species is depleted, another replaces it. "We're reaching the end of the line," Davis says. "There are not many species left to exploit."

Even so, Davis faces an uphill battle in securing approval for his refugia proposal, starting with the complex maze of administrative agencies with jurisdiction in the Channel Islands. Established as a national monument in 1938 and redesignated as a park in 1980, Channel Islands encompasses the four northern islands--San Miguel, Santa Rosa, Santa Cruz, and Anacapa--and Santa Barbara Island farther south. (The Nature Conservancy owns 89 percent of Santa Cruz Island, which is administered in its entirety by the National Park Service.) The park's 250,000 acres are split evenly between land and water. The charter calls for a low-intensity, limited-entry park, and although its boundaries extend one mile from shore, park administrators have no jurisdiction over the submerged resources. The park is also part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) 1,252-square-mile Channel Island Marine Sanctuary, with boundaries extending six miles from shore. But in establishing the sanctuary, NOAA also relinquished control of fishing and kelp harvesting to the state.

California's jurisdiction extends three miles from shore. The state has established ecological reserves around San Miguel, Santa Barbara, and Anacapa islands that extend one mile from shore and are administered by the California Department of Fish and Game, which also regulates all commercial and recreational fishing and kelp harvesting. As a result, Davis needs approval from California officials to prohibit harvesting in park waters. Although he has support in some quarters, the issue has created considerable controversy, and the fishing industry has a strong lobby.

Compounding the problem is a lack of scientific research and data on the refugia idea. Most existing marine reserves were established as a conservation measure for a threatened species, not as a fisheries management tool. Research pertaining to the reserves generally focuses on populations within the reserve boundaries, not on the impact on nearby harvest zones. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the concept works, Davis says, but scientific proof has yet to be established.

For example, three national parks in south Florida--Everglades, Biscayne, and Dry Tortugas--have joined together to establish a conservation program for the spiny lobster. The three national parks combined provide the kinds of habitat the crustaceans require, says Davis, who worked to establish the program as a staff scientist at Everglades National Park in the 1970s. Although there are few adults in Everglades, both adults and juveniles are protected in Everglades and Biscayne national parks. There is a large adult population in Dry Tortugas. The lobster fishermen who set pots around the parks say their catch has increased since harvesting was banned in juvenile nursery areas and adult habitats. Yet, no scientific data exist that compare the size of the lobster harvest before and after the program was enacted.

The same situation exists in New Zealand, where several national marine reserves have been established that operate in a fashion similar to Davis' refugia concept--taking of any natural resources is prohibited. Fishermen who work the boundaries of the reserves report increases in fish size and numbers, according to William Ballantine, a marine biologist at the University of Auckland. But in "strict scientific terms, it is difficult to be certain that these differences are due solely to the protection of the reserve," Ballantine wrote in 1991 on the subject.

Commercial fishing is an occupation bound to tradition and resistant to change, and without concrete proof the California industry will be reluctant to support closure of any existing harvest zones. John Colgate, president of California Abalone Divers' Association, agrees. Professional abalone divers do not want another layer of bureaucracy overseeing their fishery. "We're a bit miffed," says Colgate. "When the National Park [Service] came in, the agreement was they would deal with the land, not the water. We don't want too many hands governing our fisheries.... And I want to see some hard facts before they do something like shut down our more productive areas."

The association disagrees with the scientists on the causes of the abalone decline, the best solution, and the overall health of its fishery. "We don't believe our fishery is in imminent danger of collapse," Colgate says. "There are problems. Of course we're worried about it; we make our living as abalone divers." The biggest problem is not overfishing, he maintains, but proximity to Los Angeles and its pollution.

The divers are convinced that enhancement, or seeding the abalone beds with juvenile animals grown in hatcheries, is the best management method. Association members now contribute 5 percent of their profits to enhancement programs. "He's trying to do a good thing," Colgate says of Davis' proposal. "We just don't agree on the concept."

Davis says enhancement is not a cost-effective solution. Abalone have a very high annual mortality rate. The value of the catch that survives the five to seven years needed to reach market size is less than the cost of buying hatchery-grown juveniles and seeding the beds. Some scientists who study fisheries management on a global scale are inclined to agree with Davis.

According to reports issued by the United Nations, a third of the important commercial species around the globe currently are either overexploited or severely depleted, says Michael Sissenwine, senior scientist with the National Marine Fisheries Service. "The traditional resistance to control will have to change," Sissenwine says. "It's a different world now. There are a lot of people and a lot of demand for fish. Society has to balance its needs with respect to limited resources."

Sissenwine sees the biggest problem in the world's fisheries as overcapitalization--too many boats are engaged in active harvest. Although certain fisheries are still profitable, average costs of harvest around the world are 20 percent more than revenues. In other words, global fisheries are operating at a deficit.

One traditional management tool, catch quotas, seems to work for many species, he says, but as fishing becomes uneconomical, tremendous political pressure is brought to bear to boost the quotas. The refugia concept has promise, Sissenwine says, especially for near-shore species. With wide-ranging, deep-ocean species, the refugium would have to be extremely large, and consequently it would be difficult to manage and enforce, and the political pressure to allow harvest would be too great.

Convincing politicians and the fishing industry of the seriousness of the problem has been difficult, because the total tonnage of the world harvest increased steadily for years. But the bottom line is deceiving, because the tonnage has increased as a result of more boats engaged in fishing, better gear, electronic navigation equipment, and serial depletion--exploiting a new species when an old one is used up. After years of increase, 1991 was a turnaround year; the worldwide harvest is decreasing. "The reality now is there aren't many places left to go," Sissenwine says.

In an effort to gain support for the refugia concept, Davis has scaled back his proposal. NPS will use existing state of California ecological reserves in the park to test refugia concepts, and carefully measure the impact on the populations of about a dozen important commercial species, such as kelp, abalone, sea urchin, spiny lobster, sheepshead, angel shark, halibut, kelp bass, and several species of rockfish.

The size of the experiment is so small, it will have little effect on the overall health of those fisheries, Davis says. But if he can prove with scientific certainty that the populations of the target species increase outside the refugia, he may have the necessary evidence to persuade California authorities to try the experiment on a larger scale. Davis' supporters in the Fish and Game Department say it will not be easy, even with substantial evidence.

But Peter Haaker, a department marine biologist, is already convinced. "We're going through our ocean habitats and taking out species without regard to anything else. We're in a serious state of imbalance. The only hope is to set aside areas where there is no fishing. We have to protect the bio-diversity and the gene pool." Convincing the decision makers is another story. "Fisheries management in California is controlled by lobbies," Haaker says. "Regulations are made by the legislature. They get input from the department, but they don't always follow it."

Davis hopes to find more support for his proposal as the extent of problems in California's fisheries becomes more evident. In a move he calls "a very positive sign," the California Department of Fish and Game last spring recommended a statewide ban on harvesting black abalone, the most severely depleted of the four species. "It will get easier for people to accept change as their resource collapses," Davis says. "We're running out of new species. We've got to make do with what we've got."
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Title Annotation:establishing a marine sanctuary near the Channel Islands National Park, California
Author:Hierta, Ebba
Publication:National Parks
Date:Jul 1, 1993
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