California yesterday announced the first boundary for a new system of marine protected areas (MPAs) along its central coast. At a meeting in Pasadena, stakeholders agreed on a region in state waters about 300-kilometers long--stretching from a point just north of Santa Cruz to a point just north of Santa Barbara--within which the parcels of sea would be partially closed to fishing. Eventually, many such regions--each dotted with no-take zones--would span the state's coast.
There are already 104 MPAs in California, but most have not been effective. They are either in the wrong place, lack a clear conservation plan, or are too small. In 1999, California tried to address the problem with the Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA). One of MLPA's requirements was to create a network of MPAs along the state's coastline. An attempt in 2002 failed when fishers objected, and another effort in 2003 ran out of funds.
Unlike existing MPAs – which protect a small number of species in shallow water – the new MPAs will shield seven habitats across four depth zones. The key feature of the new reserves is that they will be naturally connected: endangered larvae can ride the ocean currents from one reserve to another. The idea, say scientists, is to achieve a network of MPAs that will vastly increase the odds that dispersing fish and larvae will settle in a safe and protected place.
Opposition from fishers has been minimal so far. But the plan could become more controversial when it comes to identifying the size and location of the MPAs inside the designated boundary. "It's almost like barbed wire going across the frontier," says Tom Raftican, president of the United Anglers of Southern California, which fears that large parts of state waters could be made off limits to fishing.
In addition, concerns remain about how to fund the setup and monitoring of the MPAs. And there are scientific gaps, such as how far larvae disperse. But most scientists agree that MPAs can serve as buffers against overfishing and natural disasters. According to Jane Lubchenco, a marine ecologist at Oregon State University in Corvallis, "This process could be a wonderful model" for a national system of MPAs, currently being examined by NOAA and other federal agencies.