2000-08 Human impact Test Sanctuary Ideas
Marine sanctuaries are a good idea. They give marine species a safe haven and offer scientists an opportunity to study the effects of human impacts on wild ecosystems.
But they are not easy to establish or maintain. And they are almost never totally isolated from human influence. In the United States, where 12 National Marine Sanctuaries protect some of the world's most diverse seascapes, the coastal zones are managed as "multiple use" areas, open to development, fishing, tourism, science and other activities, which are regulated with the "inherent biological benefit to organisms" in mind.
It's a delicate balance to begin with, and as more people move to the coasts, it is becoming harder to maintain that balance.
Nowhere is this situation more complex than in California's Monterey Bay, one of the true wonders of the marine world and the centerpiece of a 5,300 square-mile Marine Sanctuary created in 1992.
The Sanctuary tries to promote commercial uses while protecting ecosystems, but this is not easy. The Sanctuary is the "new kid on the block" here and must accommodate vessel traffic, commercial fishing and cities that dump industrial and municipal waste into the ocean.
Many conservationists are concerned that these impacts not only diminish many of the Bay's ecosystems, but undermine the Sanctuary's purpose.
For example, gillnet fishermen riding the crest of a Halibut boom caught more than 200,000 tons of the prized fish in 1999. Unfortunately, their gear also takes 100 harbor porpoises and some 2,500 common murres every year. Scientists believe that some 15,000 of these seabirds may have fallen victim to gillnets during the past five years.
Oil spills from shipping along the coast also plague wildlife, and recent observations suggest that small "routine" spills are more harmful than previously thought, especially to species such as murres, whose reproductive rate is slow. Some believe that small spills in the last three years may have killed up to 50,000 birds, many of them murres. This is not a good sign for the seabirds, whose population has been cut in half in the last decade and who now number roughly 300,000 birds.
But it is the issue of kelp harvesting that has brought the contradictions in the Sanctuary system to the fore. Forests of giant and bullwhip kelp are one of the signature undersea ecosystems of California's coastline.
These stands of algae, with their long tendrils and waving fronds, provide habitat for hundreds of invertebrate species, which in turn support a web of life that includes sea lions, sea otters, Gray Whales and seabirds. They also attract divers, who marvel at their beauty and diversity, and sound the alarm when the kelp is in trouble.
Conservationists, some 25,000 of whom dive in the Bay, have observed a decline in kelp, especially in the wintertime when storms ravage kelp beds. They argue that the kelp is being harvested faster than it can replenish itself and want to restrict commercial use.
Abalone farmers and other kelp users deny that kelp is in danger and are opposed to any restrictions. Kelp is a big business here. Algin derived from kelp is used as an emulsifier in foods and pharmaceuticals, and kelp is also harvested to feed a growing number of abalone farms.
Increased harvesting joins other pressures on kelp. Municipal and industrial outfall restricts the growth and fertility of kelp in its microscopic stages, and elevated water temperature harms mature plants. El Niņo events have ravaged kelp beds in the past, and global warming is sure to stress them even further.
For conservationists, these are reasons enough to restrict the harvest. Ah, but that would be a potentially difficult move for the State of California, which oversees the coastal zone and receives royalties from the $40-million kelp industry.
The Sanctuary faces a big dilemma. Under Federal law, it must review and revise its management plan every five years. It has now been eight years, and the Sanctuary has yet to comply. When it does, perhaps later this year, restricting economic activity will probably be on the agenda. And rightly so.
Monterey Bay will never be a marine wilderness off-limits to people. But there must be some recognition that current levels of protection are not adequate to fulfill the mandate of the Sanctuary to provide an "inherent biological benefit to organisms."
At the same time, we must accept the fact that we have run out of
frontiers, of wild faraway places that can be protected to appease our conscience as we ravage nature closer to home. We must simply learn to live with nature in a healthy way.
For all their contradictions, the Sanctuary systems of the world give us a chance to do just that, through debate and education. So let us transform our marine sanctuaries from contentious multiple-use battlefields into laboratories for sustainable living, where we put the "gold rush" mentality to bed forever and practice habits of respect and good stewardship.