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Marketing MPA’s

Enviros alienate anglers over Marine Protected Areas
Fly Rod & Reel    Nov./Dec. 2002

Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), traditional tools for conserving ocean resources, include national parks, national marine sanctuaries, national estuarine research reserves, national wildlife refuges and sundry fish-management designations. In the North Atlantic, for example, Buzzard's Bay and Stellwagen Bank are MPAs because mobile-gear net fishing is banned in the former and oil drilling and mineral mining are banned in the latter. In the South Atlantic the MPA known as the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary has made it possible to zone Jet Skis out of bonefish flats and prohibit the destruction of coral reefs and their fauna by commercial collectors.

Flats guide and FR&R saltwater editor, Jeffrey Cardenas, gets no argument from me when he calls for more instead of fewer restrictions in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. "I think the beautiful Marquesas atoll needs to have at least an idle-speed only regulation," he remarks. "And I'd like to see a [no-kill] zone, too." You could fish, but you'd have to release everything—not a problem for Florida fly rodders because they release everything anyway.

America has about 300 MPAs, and we're desperately in need of more, especially in light of the gross failure of fish managers to protect many of the stocks they've been entrusted with. That is why it grieves me to see MPAs given a bad name by certain environmental outfits who don't know fish or fishers but who claim to know what's best for both. For two years a nasty, absurd tiff between enviros and sportsmen has diverted both parties from real enemies they should be confronting together. It's as if Patton and Montgomery had called off the Italian campaign to engage each other in a duel with wet towels.

The trouble started on May 26, 2000 when President Clinton signed Executive Order 13158, thereby issuing a rallying cry for a coordinated, science-based network of MPAs, calling for public participation in MPA consideration and setting up a citizens' committee to advise the secretaries of Commerce and Interior on designations. The order came with no money and no new authorities. It was prudent, timely, precisely what marine fish needed. But environmental groups such as the Ocean Conservancy, Environmental Defense, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the Sierra Club took it as a call to arms. That might not have been such a bad thing had they proceeded intelligently, reaching out to sportsmen for advice and support. But they didn't.

"Marine protected areas, which restrict or prohibit fishing, offer one of the best tools for restoring depleted fishing stocks and damaged ocean ecosystems," proclaims NRDC. "Yet despite strong support from scientists and the general public, one group--sportfishermen--continues to try to block the creation of marine reserves. . . . Ironically, this group--sportfishermen—stands to benefit from this innovative tool." But MPAs don't necessarily, or even usually, "restrict or prohibit fishing." The rule establishing Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary even contains language prohibiting sportfishing restrictions. When sportfishermen read this baloney they often believe it. No wonder they hate MPAs.

In late September 2000 NRDC invited 15 marine scientists to its New York City headquarters to kibitz for a day and a half about MPAs. A day and a half isn't much time to start thinking about MPAs and then decide where they need to go, especially MPAs as defined by NRDC which "restrict or prohibit fishing." After each scientist had scrawled out his wish list, NRDC used software to project the "polygons," as it called the hoped-for no-fishing zones, onto a map. As NRDC itself reports: "Overlaying the polygons revealed multiple nominations for five ocean areas comprising some 19.4 percent of the study area: the nine submarine canyons; the offshore waters near Cape Hatteras, North Carolina; tilefish habitat between Cape May, New Jersey, and Cape Cod, Massachusetts; a 35-kilometer (18.9-nautical mile) corridor of nearshore waters extending along the study area; and a band along the continental shelf break encompassing the upper slope." Basically, it consisted of everyone's favorite fishing holes. With that, NRDC began distributing the maps to the public with no explanation that the polygons were just starting points for discussion. Anglers were aghast. "If NRDC wanted to create opposition, they could hardly have done it any more effectively," says Dr. Carl Safina, head of the National Audubon Society's Living Oceans Campaign and one of the most well-spoken and outspoken advocates for MPAs. "It has been a public-relations blunder that is completely unmatched in the environmental community."

"The first instinct is let's get some proposals together, put them on the table and talk," comments Dr. Cheri Recchia, director of marine protected areas for the Ocean Conservancy (formerly Center for Marine Conservation). "But often it's not a good approach because people misunderstand. That can really antagonize." Recchia impresses with her directness and obvious commitment to ocean resources. When I asked her how sportsmen and enviros got into this spat she said: "The environmental community doesn't always do a good job of explaining. . . . Sometimes there is a confusion about terminology, and that's been very damaging. When some of us use the term MPAs we mean closed to fishing; others mean something closer to the international usage which is a whole spectrum of areas including some closed to fishing." It was a perceptive and honest statement, especially given the fact that no group is more guilty of confusing terminology than her own.

Consider the Conservancy's Ocean Wilderness Challenge launched in June 2001 "to promote a new ocean ethic and achieve wilderness protection for special sites in US waters and in the Caribbean." The stated goal is to protect "at least five percent of US waters as wilderness." That doesn't sound like very much until you reflect that anglers fish in about one percent, and no one's going to prohibit fishing where there aren't any fish.

But wilderness is a good thing, right? It has never limited fishing or hunting; in fact it has preserved and enhanced both by banning such habitat-wrecking activities as logging, roading, oil and gas exploration, mining and tooling around in motorized off-road vehicles. For 38 years conservation writers have preached to sportsmen that wilderness isn't a plot by the antis to "lock up" federal land, that hunters and anglers conceived the idea of wilderness, started the Wilderness Society, shepherded through the Wilderness Act. Some sportsmen are beginning to get the message. But motorheads and extractive industries fronting as wise-use groups keep hissing in their ears about "access" as if feet didn't work anymore. It's hard to educate people in a miasma of white noise. And now comes the Ocean Conservancy.

"Ocean wilderness will allow fishing, won't it?" I asked the Conservancy's Greg Helms, who is heading an initiative to convert almost 25 percent of the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary off Los Angeles to ocean wilderness.


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