California may soon decide to cordon off miles of water in the beautiful Channel Islands, making a large underwater reserve. It could revive depleted sea life and may grow more fish for fishermen, too. Ilsa Setziol reports.
CURWOOD: The fog-shrouded Channel Islands of southern California are a national park that shelters rare plants and animals. The mix of warm and cool waters off shore are rich with marine life. Now, California is considering creating the largest no-fishing zone in the U.S.-controlled Pacific waters around the Channel Islands. But the proposal comes at a hard time for the west coast fishing industry.
From member station KPCC, Ilsa Setziol reports.
[BOAT MOTOR IDLING]
SETZIOL: A research boat idles near the shore of Anacapa Island off the coast of Santa Barbara. Marine biologist Jen Cassell wiggles into a wetsuit and straps on a pair of bright blue fins.
[SPLASH OF CASSELL ENTERING WATER]
SETZIOL: The U.C. Santa Barbara researcher dives into 50-degree water and emerges with a bundle of black plastic strips that look vaguely like kelp.
CASSELL (SINGING): Oh, ho, it’s not warm!
[CASSELL SHAKING OUT KELP]
SETZIOL: The black strips are artificial reefs. Cassell studies Channel Island residents like kelp bass, cabezon, and sheephead, trying to find out exactly where officials should draw the reserve lines.
[BOAT IN BACKGROUND]
CASSELL: Okay. So, now what we do is basically shake that thing out. So there is a cabezon, and we will take him back to the lab for genetic study and for aging and growth studies.
[WAVES SPLASHING ON ROCKS]
SETZIOL: Much of this sweep of water, 570 square miles, could become marine reserves. Hawaii and Florida already have large marine reserves, but there’s been some question whether they would work as well in California’s cooler waters. Jen Cassell thinks it’s likely they will. She says a handful of small reserves in southern California are already showing some success. One is near the Anacapa Lighthouse.
CASSELL: There are real effects of the reserve that you can see, even though it’s a rather small reserve. We see larger kelp bass and larger sheephead. And so one of the reasons we may see a lot of California sheephead here, and why they’re growing so fast and they’re so big is that there’s a lot of their prey available. Some of their prey, like lobsters, are fished heavily in other areas.
SETZIOL: But with reserves, you couldn’t fish in many of these places any more, and that comes at a hard time for many west coast fisherman. The government recently shut down much of the fishing on the continental shelf along the entire west coast to protect several species of bottom-dwelling fish. And the number of coastal fishing boats is also being cut back.
PENDLETON: I think it’s pretty clear in the short term that recreational fisherman, and especially commercial fisherman, are going to take it on the chin.
SETZIOL: Economist Linwood Pendleton, studies coastal issues. Like many people looking at west coast fish, he questions whether the current rate of fishing would have been sustainable.
PENDLETON: We just see one fishery after the next that’s in trouble.
SETZIOL: The government says it could be more than a hundred years before some fish can be caught again. So the boats are parked at the docks; so many, in fact, that people are comparing this situation to the Atlantic Cod crisis. Still, recreational fisherman, like Tom Raftican, don’t see marine reserves as the answer.
RAFTICAN: If these work, we’ll be the ones pushing for marine reserves. But you’ve got untested reserves in an untested area. Let’s make sure they work before you take away the public’s ability to fish.
SETZIOL: The sad truth for some coastal communities is that planners are beginning to look beyond fishing. David Bunn is deputy director of the California Department of Fish & Game.
BUNN: I think one thing you have to realize is that the coastal economy today is much more diverse than just fishing. We now have kayakers. We have birders. We have whale watchers. We have divers. And those are equally valuable parts of our coastal economy. People will want to go see these beautiful, pristine areas on the Channel Islands.
SETZIOL: More than 17 million people surf, kayak and bird watch, or just look at the scenery along the California coast every year. Only one in six brings a fishing pole. Again, economist Linwood Pendleton.
PENDLETON: In the long run, tourism is clearly more sustainable. We know that people spend more and more time outside, and they value it much more. More and more people in California consider themselves environmentalists, or, at least, people that care about nature.
[WAVES SPLASHING AGAINST BOW OF FAST MOVING BOAT]
SETZIOL: As marine biologist Jen Cassell pilots the boat to another survey site, we see hundreds of brown pelicans coasting over the island’s deep cliffs. A couple of dozen sea lions are cavorting in a cave. Cassell hopes her research will ensure that reserves around the Channel Island are good for both fish and fisherman.
Researchers already know reserves can create abundance within their confines, and now many of them believe they can be designed to deliberately increase fish outside the reserve boundaries too.
[SPLASH OF CASSELL ENTERING WATER]
SETZIOL: Cassell dives again and this time she brings up something new--a clear gelatinous squiggle that’s all head, eyes and tail.
[SOUND OF IDLING BOAT]
CASSELL: What we’ve got here is a transparent kelp fish. This is an actual larvae. It must have just landed on the reef today because it hasn’t even gotten any color.
SETZIOL: The trick, she says, is the find out where fish travel. And in looking at that, scientists recently made a discovery. The inner ear of fishes contains a tiny flight recorder, a tape of where fish have been, a map of habitat.
CASSELL: We don’t know where larvae come from. For the most part, we don’t know where they go. And that’s a major focus of our research program right now, is figuring that out. Because that has very important consequences for how you design marine reserves.
SETZIOL: The state is expected to approve plans for marine reserves around the Channel Island on the 23rd of October.
For Living on Earth, I’m Ilsa Setziol, off of Anacapa Island.
CURWOOD: For more on the California marine reserves, go to loe.org on the web.
Coming up, unraveling the mystery of Robinson Crusoe. You’re listening to Living on Earth.
[MUSIC: Herb Palmieri, "Habriendo El Dominante" NUYORICAN SOUL (Giant Step, 1997)]
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