By Annam Raza
Over spring break, when California’s harsh winter temperatures began to rise back up, I finally went snorkeling at La Jolla Cove, which is a bit embarrassing to admit, since I have lived in the La Jolla area for three years and the cove is about 10 minutes away by car. Although the reported visibility was good, I didn’t expect much; the occasional fish, maybe some kelp, probably no leopard sharks. Once I overcame my aversion to the genuinely cold water though, I was amazed by what I saw: mesmerizing sea grass, undulating gently, glittering with unusual numbers of Garibaldi, a bright orange fish that has been declared the official state fish of California. Dozens of other fish swam by, unfazed by my presence, and I even saw a few sea lions up close! Drying off on the nearby beach, I wished I could take home a small memento of some sort, just as a pretty little souvenir.
But I wouldn’t dare. It’s illegal to remove anything from the vicinity, even empty shells. Official signage posted by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife clearly states that “No person shall disturb or take any plant, bird, mammal, fish, mollusk, crustacean, reptile or any other form of plant life, marine life, shells, geological formations, or archaeological artifacts…” because La Jolla Cove is part of a larger marine park, the San Diego-La Jolla Underwater Park. All you can do is dive, snorkel or swim – no surfing! The lifeguards carefully enforce these rules. The enforcement is so fastidious in fact, that La Jolla Cove is one of best dive sites in the entire network of Californian Marine Protected Areas, or MPAs.
I already knew the status of the cove, but delving in a little further, I realized I had no idea how far the protected area stretched down the shore. Most of us, unintentionally, have been using Marine Protected Areas: 15 percent of waters in Southern California alone are protected, covering 355 square miles. These areas help conserve the ocean in a myriad of ways, by protecting endangered species, sensitive habitats, cultural heritage or all of the above.
So, what exactly is a Marine Protected Area? As defined by the MPA Executive Order 13158, written in 2000 and signed by President Clinton, it is “any area of the marine environment that has been reserved by federal, state, territorial, tribal, or local laws or regulations to provide lasting protection for part or all of the natural and cultural resources therein.” This official government definition is inexact, and this ambiguity is not only frustratingly confusing to read about, but also seriously complicates the development of policies that would allow the effective implementation of what has been proven to be an incredibly promising tool in marine conservation. In fact, of the MPAs that exist, 50 percent have been wrongly allocated simply because the name is misleading (National Park, Sanctuary, etc.). With the exception of the three percent of U.S. waters declared as no-take areas, defined by the NOAA as areas that totally prohibit the extraction or significant destruction of natural or cultural resources , protected areas are still being exploited, mainly by fisheries and tourism, which use the loopholes inherent in the legislation to find a way around it,to the ocean’s future detriment.
Although it may seem more advantageous to glean profits from the fish immediately, protected areas provide several ecosystem services that are far more valuable in the long term than the cost of the animals we so carelessly remove from within it. An excellent example of this is the economic valuation of mangroves to fisheries nearby: in the Gulf of California, fisheries landings are positively correlated to the presence of nearby mangrove forests. Per hectare of mangrove fringe, the annual economic median value of these fisheries is $37,500 .
In 2012, in an effort to remedy this problem, the IUCN redefined a protected area as “a clearly defined geographical space, recognized, dedicated and managed, through legal or other effective means, to achieve the long-term conservation of nature with associated ecosystem services and cultural values.” This recasting helps undercut the exploitation of pristine areas. The effect of this action will hopefully be visible within the next few years!
And if you can’t wait that long to see results, just look at the fantastic success of the Chumbe Island Coral Park in Zanzibar. Declared a nature reserve in 1991, it is one of the last pristine coral reefs in East Africa, possibly even the world. It has a fully protected coral reef sanctuary and forest reserve, a visitor and education center, an eco-lodge, nature trails and historical ruins. The buildings and operations are designed to have zero impact on the environment, being modeled on state-of-the-art eco-technology. From a capitalist perspective, the island is not a commercial success, but from a biological perspective, it is priceless.
Besides the existence of parks like Chumbe Island, there is other promising conservation news, such as the proposal by the Cook Islands’ government to turn just over 50 percent of the country’s Exclusive Economic Zone (defined by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea as a seazone within which a state has special rights to control the use of the ocean) into a marine park, effectively granting protection to 0.25 percent of the Pacific Ocean and creating the largest marine park in the world. However the grim reality remains that the world’s oceans are still edging towards conditions that signal a major extinction event. These small victories shouldn’t mask the bigger picture; as Dan Laffoley, Marine Vice-Chair of IUCN’s World Commission on Protected Areas says, “It is time to stop pretending more of the ocean is protected than it actually is. Understanding what is protected in the ocean and how it is protected is of paramount importance in driving global conservation efforts forward.”
Research suggests between 20 and 50 percent of the world’s oceans need to protected to conserve biodiversity, so many more protected areas need to be established, ideally areas that transcend our borders. The oceans are a contiguous unit, with fish being able to swim freely throughout it, a fact driven home by the data recovered from tagged sharks, which regularly crossed political boundaries over great distances, often through areas with no protection. This data, along with other research, was used to predict likely habitats for highly migratory species such as whales, tuna and sharks. The research also underscored the importance of international cooperation when it comes to ocean conservation, an issue raised at the 11th Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity. Scientists at this conference also gauged methods of conservation for fragile habitats such as hydrothermal vents, and their reports revealed that richly diverse and productive places, such as the Sargasso Sea, the Tonga Trench and unique seamounts with cold water reefs, transcended national boundaries yet did not trigger any automatic protection. Upon this revelation, many governments called for a new legal instrument under the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. This measure was hotly debated at Rio+20 in June 2012, and governments agreed to make a decision by 2014 at the latest.
Hopefully, we’ll hear good news within the next year or so. Although we are gradually making progress on ocean conservation, we still have a long way to go. The implementation of new policies, as well as stricter rules about MPAs are definitely a step in the right direction, but significant differences will only become apparent over long time-scales. This doesn’t mean the small things don’t matter; I believe that the fact that I didn’t collect any shells on La Jolla Cove, even if it would have been illegal, could have been as significant as the proverbial flap of a butterfly’s wing theoretically triggering a hurricane. Conservation is the cumulative effort of many individuals, and not a quick fix, so next time you’re on the beach, just pause for a second and consider what you could do as an individual to make the ocean a slightly better place.
Image by sgrace