Marine Protected Areas

I spent several years of my career managing fisheries. I worked hard at it but honestly, I wasn’t that great. It wasn’t for lack of trying, or lack of knowing what I was talking about it was lack of being convincing to fishermen that resulted in my decisions being regularly overturned. This was a frustrating situation for everybody and I was eventually relieved of my management responsibilities. I bring this subject up not out of some masochistic need for self-flagellation but to highlight a point. Managing fisheries is hard. It is part science, part communication, part diplomacy, and honestly part magic I think. The portion of management which consists of science shrinks or expands depending upon the nature of the fishery. At any rate, it often leads to over fishing.
Another really difficult part of fisheries management is preventing the gear involved from damaging the habitat. This is particularly problematic for fisheries on hard bottoms or in areas with sensitive, long-lived, habitat-creating species like corals and sponges. Surprisingly, these species are not just in tropical areas, but are quite common in Southeast Alaska, and other areas of the State as well. When fisheries are young, and effort is low it is easy for fishermen to avoid these sensitive areas. Invariably, however, the dance of intensification begins with the implementation of limited entry creating a wave of increased vessels entering the fishery resulting in managers shortening seasons to limit catch and fishermen fishing harder with more gear. Eventually it becomes next to impossible to avoid sensitive habitat.
Since my time at Glacier Bay I have been interested in the role of Marine Protected Areas (but fully protected, not just protected from commercial fishing) in providing for sustainable fisheries. Correctly designed, these protected areas can act as ‘insurance policies’ for fisheries in several ways. First, they preserve the intact ecosystem for study, so biologists can continue to improve their understanding of the species. Without such areas it is hard to say if observed changes in a species (such as declining size in king salmon and sablefish) are a result of the fishery, or the environment, making design of an appropriate response difficult. Second, they act as nurseries, exporting larvae and adults to adjacent areas. In New Zealand and the Canary Islands marine protected areas which were initially fought tooth and nail are providing such benefits that they are now advocated for by both commercial and recreational fishermen. Third, marine protected areas protect habitat too vulnerable to be exploited without destruction. Fourth, they prevent the ‘sliding baseline’ syndrome wherein each new generation of biologists and fishermen become accustomed to and accept a new lower level of ecosystem productivity. Finally, Alaska is currently reeling from global climate change effects which are predicted to hit high latitude areas harder than elsewhere in the world. Alaska’s fisheries developed later than the lower 48 and we have been able to implement policy to avoid many mistakes, making us a leader in sustainable fisheries in the nation and worldwide. Let’s continue that leadership by establishing a network of small, highly targeted marine protected areas throughout State and Federal waters of Alaska!