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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Marine Sanctuaries

Air Date: Week of

President Clinton is hoping to extend protection of America’s waters before he leaves office. Right now, there are thirteen designated marine sanctuaries. That’s less than one percent of the nation’s waters. As Jennifer Niessen from KPLU in Seattle reports, the President is calling for a broad system of marine protected areas.


CURWOOD: Vast and limitless. That's how America's settlers viewed the western frontier, and it's the same way many of us look at our oceans today. The seas supply us with a bounty of food and fuel as well as recreation, but they've been taxed by overfishing, pollution, and drilling for resources such as natural gas and crude oil. On November thirteenth, President Clinton signed legislation which is designed to extend and improve the management of thirteen federal sanctuaries for marine life. This follows an executive order he made in the spring directing agencies to create a national system that links state and federal marine protected areas. From member station KPLU in Seattle, Jennifer Niessen has an update.


NIESSEN: The Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary in Washington State is one of the largest marine protected areas in the country. Thirty-three hundred square miles of pristine ocean, kelp beds, and rugged coastline make up the sanctuary. Carol Bernthal is the sanctuary's superintendent.

BERNTHAL: We have 29 species of marine mammals, five different species of whales, lots of different sea birds. Common muirs, grebes, cormorants, sea otters, sea lions, orca whales. It's an extremely productive area.

NIESSEN: The Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary is an exception to the rule. Currently, less than one tenth of one percent of U.S. waters are protected. Regulations vary from limited or no development to tight restrictions on fishing. Elliot Norse, the president of the Marine Conservation Biology Institute in Redmond, Washington, says America's coastlines haven't received nearly the same attention that's been bestowed on parks and wilderness areas.

NORSE: We are terrestrial creatures, and our biology equips us for living on land. When we drive past a place that's being mined or clear-cut and we see the devastation to the biota, most people feel a visceral reaction that says, "Hey, this is really troubling." But the sea surface looks pretty much the same whether the sea is dead or alive. And so as a result, we assume, "Hey, everything's okay. It looks pretty good to me."

NIESSEN: Norse and other scientists lobbied successfully to bring the declining state of our nation's waterways to the attention of the White House. Standing on a sandy beach of the Assateague Island National Sea Shore off the coast of Virginia and Maryland last spring, President Clinton unveiled his executive order.


CLINTON: I'm signing an executive order to create a national system to preserve our coasts, reefs, underwater forests, and other treasures, directing the Commerce and Interior Departments to work together to create a network of marine protected areas encompassing pristine beaches, mysterious deep water trenches, and every kind of marine habitat....

NIESSEN: The President's order calls for a plan to protect the reefs of the northwest Hawaiian islands. It also requires the Environmental Protection Agency to strengthen water quality standards. One idea that's being discussed is to group marine protected areas into different regions, such as the west and east coasts, the Great Lakes, and Hawaii. Before federal agencies can get to specifics, states across the country are being asked to count their existing marine protected areas. Inventories are already underway throughout the country. But Carol Bernthal with the Olympic Coast Marine Sanctuary cautions that all of this planning won't go anywhere without money

BERNTHAL: We don't have enough resources to really do our job. I think there's been an improvement in the budget situation, but it's -- it's still not enough.

NIESSEN: Right now the National Marine Sanctuary Program operates with a budget of $26 million a year, roughly the cost of a single naval aircraft. President Clinton is asking for an additional six million dollars for the year 2001. Any new funding would have to be approved by Congress. The sanctuary Bernthal manages operates on a very tight budget. She says due to a lack of full-time staff, important regulations designed to protect wildlife aren't being enforced.

BERNTHAL: We have an overflight regulation within the sanctuary, that planes are limited from flying below 2,000 feet within one mile of the shorelines or offshore rocks, because of sensitive nesting sea birds. But other than having to be out here on a day where I happen to notice that there's a plane flying over, and I happen to get the tail number, we're not enforcing that regulation right now. So, how well are we really doing?

NIESSEN: The obvious benefits of marine protected areas are that they preserve existing habitat and wildlife and foster a safe environment for growth. According to Elliot Norse with the Marine Conservation Biology Institute, that growth can have economic payoffs. He says if marine protected areas are used to shelter key habitats where fish spawn, the fishing industry would benefit substantially.

NORSE: If it's truly protected, if there's no fishing, there's no oil drilling, there's no dumping of pollution, etc., the fish become much more abundant and much bigger. And this is important; this has an economic consequence. These fish reproduce many, many more young than small fish do. But within a marine protected area, the fish can grow older, and they produce many more young, and their surplus young leak out or are sent out of the protected areas into the adjacent waters.

NIESSEN: The Nonprofit Center for Marine Conservation's Doug Obiji says marine protected areas also bring in recreation dollars.

OBIJI: You look at a lot of the marine protected areas in Florida, say, and the tourist economy there is tremendously driven by scuba diving and snorkeling and other uses of the National Marine Sanctuary.

NIESSEN: But not everyone is convinced marine protected areas are good. Commercial fishermen who are already heavily regulated are concerned the national system will lead to more red tape and tighter fishing restrictions. While few fishermen will comment before seeing the final plan, Glen Spain of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations is optimistic.

SPAIN: Our view is that marine protected areas can be a useful tool if they're biologically based. They need to be primarily for the purpose of protecting marine resources, not just putting up big areas of the ocean off limits, just for its own sake.


NIESSEN: The plan for marine protected areas is expected to be completed and reviewed by the end of the year. For Living on Earth, I'm Jennifer Niessen in Seattle.



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