The marine protected areas debate has matured to the point where everyone – government regulators, industry, scientists, environmentalists – acknowledges that marine protected areas (MPAs) are a concept that is here to stay. Depending on how you define them, despite pressure from environmentalists and the endorsement of two presidents, Clinton and now Bush, few marine protected areas have been established. Only one MPA tailored to protect marine biodiversity – the Florida’s Tortugas Ecological Preserve – has been established in federal waters.

Discussions remain largely theoretical. Industry stakeholders view MPAs with suspicion as another scheme to place large tracts of ocean out of bounds. So until a concrete proposal for a marine protected area is put on the table that is clearly outlined with specific objectives, marine protected areas are likely to remain sequestered in the realm of theory and “study.” Commercial fishermen, already pushed into a corner by regulatory amendments and court orders, feel they have too much at stake.

Fishermen, scientists, environmentalists and lawmakers do agree on several points. They accept that preserving marine biodiversity is critical to the health of the oceans and the long-term sustainability of a centuries-old tradition of commercial fishing. But few people other than scientists and fishermen understand the marine environment well enough to know what protecting biodiversity entails. The same proponents who are aggressively pushing the case for MPAs are the ones also advocating more stringent restrictions on the fishing industry.

“You can be sure that industry doesn’t trust them,” says Maggie Raymond, who represents the groundfish industry group Associated Fisheries of Maine. “The whole discussion about MPAs has a momentum of its own. They pre-conclude that a certain percentage of the [ocean] bottom should be set aside, even before they decide for what purpose. And of course they always want to pick the most productive fishing areas.”

To government regulators, MPAs are worse than a hot potato – Maine Marine Resources Commissioner George Lapointe was has spoken of them as “a political hand grenade” to marine regulators. That grenade was tossed in their lap by President Bill Clinton, who shortly before leaving office signed Executive Order 13158 creating MPAs. His order broadly defined MPAs as “any area … that has been reserved … to provide lasting protection for the natural and cultural resources within.” It also encouraged establishment of such areas.

The loose definitions and meanings in Executive Order 13158 allow a lot of scope for interpretation and disagreement: How long is “lasting”? If an area is “reserved” does that mean you can’t fish there?

The order accommodates one person’s interpretation of MPAs as a temporary spawning closure as readily as it does a marine sanctuary where no fishing is ever allowed.

Scientists and environmentalists argue that permanent “wilderness” has to be incorporated into any meaningful marine conservation plan. Fishermen have often supported limited closures to protect the resource. Where such closures have been implemented, biodiversity successfully increased, and vessels fishing around the edges of the closed area benefited from an abundant harvest of fish spilling out of the adjacent “nursery” area.

Fishermen are already boxed out of more than 12,000 square miles of the Gulf of Maine by seasonal or species-specific fisheries management closures. Historically, some of these are highly productive, such as the triangle out on Georges Bank known officially as Closed Area II. Some areas are closed seasonally to match key spawning times. These seasonal or rolling closures re-open in one place just as the adjacent area closes.

Paul Howard, executive director of the New England Fisheries Management Council, says the existing system works. “In combination with effort reductions and controls, gear restrictions and other measures, groundfish species – such as haddock and flounder that were in steep decline ten years ago – have shown remarkable recovery,” he says.

Fishermen point to that track record to explain their primary concern: that in their zeal to push for MPAs, proponents will begin with an attempt to make existing closures permanent. They have good reason to fear.

When scallopers were permitted back into Closed Area II, the environmental group Oceana sued the National Fisheries Management Service for letting them back in. The area is subject to rotational closures to protect the resource, and in the ten years since the measure was established scallops had rebounded. The fishermen who went into the area filled their dredges in 20-minute tows compared to the usual 120 to 180 minutes. “It makes sense to close an area and allow [the stock] to grow, and then go back in when it is replenished,” says Maggie Raymond. “They drag their dredges less time on the bottom and are still filling up the bags. The [New England Fisheries Management] Council did a good job – groundfishermen felt good, the scallopers went in and had a good catch, and people were eating scallops.”

Yet it still cost the fishermen, Raymond argues, because they had legal expenses to pay as interveners in the Oceana lawsuit. “That’s why you have to be careful closing an area. We have to decide, do we want these resources or don’t we? You have to define your objective and then go forward.”

Ocean Conservancy, a marine conservation group headquartered in Washington, D.C., with an office in Portland, defines its objective as wilderness protection for at least five percent of the ocean (they say only about 0.036 percent of U.S. oceans is currently protected as wilderness). Ocean Conservancy president Roger Rufe is quoted in the organization’s literature saying “We believe it is time to bring the same ethic of care that our lands have received for years to our oceans – before it’s too late.”

This logic completely contradicts most fishermen’s motivation for going to sea. They see their livelihood catching fish as doing good, by providing the public with healthy food to eat. They question who will visit an underwater wilderness, and what good an ocean park will do anyone. They see clearly the perceived threats of MPAs to their livelihood.

Bridging the gulf between this perspective and one that proclaims the inherent value of preserving the ocean’s diversity may get a jump-start from the scientific expertise offered by people like University of Maine professor Bob Steneck, who has probably spent more time in submersibles patrolling the Gulf of Maine floor than most people spend on the surface. Steneck says MPAs should be incorporated as part of a comprehensive ocean-use planning process that allows for wild harvest and production, as well as ocean wilderness.

“Stopping fishing doesn’t stop pollution or environmental degradation,” says Steneck. While fishing has played a role in changing the marine ecosystem – the impact of intense, frequent dragging on fragile ocean corals and anemones, for example – Steneck also says other large-scale factors such as atmospheric deposition, land use and changing climate play a role. He suggests that the goal of any proposed MPA be clearly defined, whether to improve the stocks of a particular species or to create a marine wilderness area that can act as a “reserve” for rare or noncom- mercial species. Without such clearly defined goals and an established method
to measure progress, it will be hard for MPA proponents to convince skeptical fishermen.

Who is going to lead the process? States could take up the initiative, as did California by creating its own system of MPAs, many of which bar fishing. Maggie Raymond insists that any MPA proposed as a no-take zone should go thru the existing Regional Fisheries Management Councils because they must review how their decisions affect both fish and fishermen.

“[Proponents] can designate all the MPAs they want, but if that entails designating what kinds of fishing goes on, it should go through the Councils,” says Raymond. “They need to make sure all the stakeholders are involved in that discussion.”

Gingerly, Maine is sticking its toe into the cool waters of the MPA debate by evaluating the suite of existing fisheries closures. The next step could be to ask whether more restrictive MPAs might be appropriate for any purpose.

Whatever interest the first MPA proposal targets – fishing, oil and gas exploration, sand and gravel mining, ocean dumping – that is when the debate can be expected to get lively. Until someone floats an actual proposal, the posturing will continue.