Tipping the Scales.
DRAMATIC CHANGES have taken place at the local market over the past few decades that should indicate a dangerous trend to anyone who is paying attention. Not too long ago, fish markets in the United States sold very little beyond cod and flounder. Today, the number of species presented on ice behind sterile glass cases is much more varied. Skate wings are offered alongside monkfish and telapia--a fish that has been successfully farmed around the globe.
Marine experts say this trend indicates a troubled fishery rather than a more sophisticated American palette. As target species are depleted, new ones must be exploited to maintain the industry's economic viability As commercially desirable marine resources decline at an alarming rate around the world, environmental groups, scientists, and some National Park Service (NPS) managers have begun to question the practice of allowing the harvest of wildlife resources in marine parks.
Commercial fishermen take 100 million pounds of seafood from Glacier Bay National Park in Alaska every year. At Channel Islands National Park off the coast of California, the white abalone is nearing extinction after years of legal fishing by commercial and recreational divers. And sport anglers in Florida ply the waters of Dry Tortugas National Park for highly prized grouper and snapper.
Located 68 miles west of Key West at the terminus of the Florida Keys archipelago, Dry Tortugas National Park consists of seven small islands and 64,700 acres of submerged land around them. The largest island, Garden Key, is the site of Fort Jefferson, the largest all-masonry fortification in the country.
Some of the most spectacular coral reefs on the East Coast ring these islands. Dry Tortugas provides a breeding ground for sea turtles, and more than 100 varieties of fish have been spotted there, including tarpon, nurse sharks, the huge jewfish, and the tiny seahorse. The islands are at an oceanic crossroads, with currents from the Gulf of Mexico, the Atlantic Ocean, and the Caribbean Sea carrying nutrients that contribute to the park's biodiversity. As the fist-moving currents swirl around the Tortugas, the juveniles of species spawned in the area, such as coral polyps, lobsters, and other crustaceans, as well as puffer and pipe fishes are carried along to replenish the entire Florida Keys reef system.
The waters outside the park are part of Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary; administered by, the, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the state of Florida. Although the park has banned commercial fishing since its establishment in 1935 and recently eliminated lobstering and spear fishing, commercial and recreational fishing are allowed in sanctuary waters. NOAA's management plan for the sanctuary, which includes waters from south of Biscayne Bay near Miami to the Tortugas, proposes an Ecological Reserve in the Tortugas region where fishing would be prohibited. NOAA has asked NPS to establish similar restrictions in waters next to NOAA's reserve. This would be the first large "no-take" zone established in a marine national park. Smaller zones exist at Channel Islands and Virgin Islands national parks and Buck Island Reef National Monument.
Park Service participation is crucial, NOAA officials say, because the reserve should encompass an entire habitat, such as the shallower areas adjacent to the reels, which are controlled by the park. Those areas contain extensive sea grass beds that provide crucial foraging grounds for turtles, fish, and lobsters. For instance, lobsters move from the deep reefs in winter to shallow reefs in spring to mate. The females remain on the edges of the shallow reefs until they release their eggs, while males continue to the shallowest patch reefs where they forage all summer. The females join them in August, and after the first winter storms in November, the lobsters return to the deep reefs.
"Animals don't know the difference between NOAA and NPS," says Ben Haskell, science coordinator with the Florida Keys sanctuary. "Ecosystems don't recognize political boundaries. We need to cross these boundaries and manage the entire ecosystem."
Establishing a no-take zone is important for several reasons, Haskell says, including fisheries management, habitat protection, and scientific research. Currently fisheries are managed by establishing size and catch limits for different species, as well as restrictions on the type of fishing gear used. Although size limits may prohibit fishermen from taking juveniles, these restrictions do not prevent them from removing mature fish at the peak of their reproduction years. A no-take zone will provide an area where wildlife are allowed to grow to maturity and reach their optimum size and age for reproduction.
Fish targeted b,y commercial and recreational anglers are the large predators at the top of the food web. When one segment of the food web is removed or significantly reduced, it affects the balance of the community. The imbalance creates stress for reef residents and leaves them more susceptible to fatal competition for space and food. In addition, certain fishing techniques such as trawling or dragging can harm habitats. Inside the zone, the habitat will be allowed to return to its natural state.
Creating a reserve will also provide a baseline from which scientists can evaluate what is happening outside the reserve. "It's fair to say we don't really know a lot about how the coral reef ecosystem functions, the synergism between species, and what determines the ecosystem's health," says Haskell.
Research in other countries where ecological reserves are used for conservation and fisheries management shows that the fish catches usually increase outside the reserve boundaries, says Jim Bonsack, who oversees fisheries monitoring in the Florida Keys for the National Marine Fisheries Service. In the Western Sambos Ecological Reserve, a no-take zone established in July 1997 near Boca Chica Key northeast of the Tortugas, lobster, grouper, and snapper populations showed increases in size and numbers after just one year of protection, Bonsack says.
In the process of reevaluating its management plan for Dry Tortugas National Park, NPS has agreed to work jointly with NOAA to formulate a plan to best protect the area's resources. However, park managers stop short of endorsing NOAA's call for a no-take zone.
"We face a delicate balancing act between protecting the environment and allowing recreation," says Robert Brock, marine biologist with the park. "Both are included in our charter."
Park managers are concerned about the tremendous increase in the number of visitors, Brock says, along with their impact. Visitation is up 400 percent in the last 15 years and is expected to continue to rise. Although commercial fishing has been banned in the park since it was established, a growing fleet of recreational charter boats and privately owned fishing boats based in the Keys regularly target the park's resource-rich waters. Charters are limited by the park to six-passenger vessels. "We're concerned about some of the grouper and snapper species," Brock says. "We have a lot of anecdotal evidence that they are declining."
On the other hand, Brock says, the Park Service cannot ignore the recreational purpose of the park. "We have to look at the park's congressional mandate and our mission and goals and see if we are meeting these goals," he adds. "We can't just decide up front we need an ecological reserve. We have to look at all of the options."
Kim Swatland, NPCA's regional representative in south Florida, says the Park Service must consider the options, but that recreation does not have to involve taking a resource. "What defines recreation?" She asked. "Recreation can involve floating on the surface of the water and admiring the creatures of the ocean. We are not talking about putting the whole park off-limits. But we should be able to protect the minute to the magnificent, the microorganisms and the coral polyps all the way to the turtles, tarpons, and sharks. It only makes sense for the protection and preservation to come under the umbrella of the Park Service. It works for terrestrial resources, why would it not be the same for marine resources?"
The Park Service has identified a range of possible management strategies, from keeping existing regulations intact to the extremely unlikely option of closing the entire park, says Deputy Superintendent Lawrence Belli. The final outcome will most likely result in a "zoning" of the park, Belli says, in which different recreational activities are directed to certain areas of the park. While the NOAA project and the Park Service efforts are separate, he says, the two agencies are working together to protect the region.
"We certainly wouldn't put a high-intensity fishing zone next to NOAA's ecological reserve. We're committed to making this a joint effort."
Other marine national parks are watching the Dry Tortugas closely, with an eye to adding more regulations to protect marine resources.
At Channel lands National Park in California, park scientists have been calling for establishment of a no-take zone for years, but fishing regulations there are controlled by the state of California, which has preferred a catch-limit approach.
As a result, populations of green, red, and pink abalone as well as some species of sea urchin are severely depleted, says Gary Davis, a marine biologist at the park, and the white abalone could become extinct. After searching 27 acres of white abalone habitat on 39 reefs in 1997, scientists found only 12 animals. In the 1970s, these same reefs supported more than 100,000 white abalone. Davis says only 1,000 individuals exist throughout their historic range from Point Conception, California, to Bahia Tortugas, with the greatest concentration around Channel Islands.
In the face of complete collapse of the abalone fisheries in southern California, the state is admitting that its approach is not working, says Davis, and the California Fish and Game Commission is now considering a no-take zone in park waters. "It's unfortunate that it took the collapse of these fisheries to convince people thai there is a problem here," he says. "But if we can learn from this experience, it will help us restore these depleted populations."
Scientists have found that removal of lobster and fish predators and the reduction of species such as abalone and sea urchins, which compete for space and food, allowed the smaller purple urchin populations to explode. These creatures, in turn, overgraze the giant kelp that distinguish the park waters. The kelp are weakened and no longer recover quickly from naturally occurring stress such as El Nino. "We're concerned that the whole system is unravelling," he says. "Removal of these species is affecting the entire kelp forest ecology."
In Alaska's Glacier Bay, the situation is even more politically charged. For the past decade, the controversy between continued commercial extraction and the preservation and study of naturally functioning marine ecosystems has become intense. Beginning in 1992, a series of regulatory and legislative battles over proposals to close areas within the park ensued. As a result of a suit brought by the Alaska Wildlife Alliance, the court ruled that NPS had no authority to allow commercial fishing within areas designated as wilderness. The court also determined that NPS could allow commercial fishing in non-wilderness waters, provided that such activity did not impair park resources and was clearly defined and authorized by regulation.
In October 1998, a law passed by Congress provided for closure of wilderness waters, immediate establishment of several additional closed areas in the upper arms of the bay, phase-out of commercial fishing within the remainder of the bay over the lifetime of fishermen with an existing history of use, and continued fishing in the waters outside the bay under a cooperative conservation plan between NPS and the state. The new law also provided funds to "buy-out", a limited group of crab fishermen who depended on wilderness waters that would be dosed. In 1999, however, Sen. Frank Murkowski (R-Alaska) introduced legislation to permanently re-open the park to commercial fishing. Following weeks of intense opposition, this was rejected.
Prompted by Murkowski's efforts, Alaska's governor has announced the state's intention to bring litigation in federal court claiming state ownership of all tide and submerged lands and marine waters inside the park.
"Any time you carve out an area for protection, you have a constituency that is displaced," says Randy King, chief park ranger at Glacier Bay.
In the Florida Keys, fishing is a key element of the local economy, and interest groups hold a lot of political clout. Representatives of the commercial fishing industry, however, say they will not oppose NOAA's plan to close some important, fishing grounds, as long as they are not the only users displaced.
"We understand the need for the reserves," says Peter Gladding, a commercial fisherman who works on a hand liner out of Key West and serves on the sanctuary's advisory group working on the proposed Tortugas reserve. "I think it will help the fishery in the long run."
At most, Gladding believes NPS should put in some mooring buoys and allow snorkelers to view protected reefs from the surface. All recreational fishing and even recreational scuba diving should be prohibited, he says.
Accustomed to no regulation beyond the Florida Fish and Game Department's size and "bag" limits for various species, recreational anglers in south Florida do not support the NOAA plan and say they will object to any NPS proposals that would displace them.
Banning recreational fishing completely in some areas is a "draconian measure" that will not make any appreciable contribution to protecting resources, says John Brownlee, an editor of Saltwater Sportsman magazine and another member of the local advisory group.
"If they can show us it's necessary, we would not object to making some areas catch-and-release. We would not object to banning fishing of some species that may need protection. We would not object to restrictions on where we can anchor. But," Brownlee emphasizes, "we want to know what criteria they are using in making their decisions."
"It is a juggling act," says Robert Brock, a park scientist. "We're called on to protect the plants and wildlife for the enjoyment of the public, and that's often part of the problem -- the public enjoys it a little too much. We hope to devise a plan that protects these resources and is fair to everyone."
TAKE ACTION: Write and support the alternative that sets aside no-take areas and creates a contiguous zone between the park and the marine sanctuary. Address: South Florida Planning Team, Denver Service Center, 12795 West Alemeda Parkway, P.O. Box 25287-9901, Denver, CO 80225-9901.