MPAs: Why “Gary” Baldi is the New Smokey

Remember those old US Forest Service ads? Smokey the Bear, resplendent in thick fur and drill sergeant hat, looked into the camera and said in that deep, haunting, man-of-the-mountains voice, “Only you can prevent wildfires.”

The Department of Fish and Game should be recasting that with “Gary,” a talking garibaldi, and swapping “prevent wildfires” for “restore the ocean.”

The New Year started out with a bang for ocean conservation, with 37 marine protected areas across Southern California going into effect January 1.

It didn’t happen just like that – most overnight successes take several years, and this was no exception.

There were three years of debate between fishermen, divers, scientists, kayakers, game wardens, politicians, tour boat operators, surfers, school teachers – anyone who had something to say about ocean protections, before a conclusion was reached. During this time, it’s been my job to write the story from an objective reporter’s viewpoint. Now, as Online Editor for One World One Ocean, I can come clean.

I’m biased.

I’m glad stronger marine protections were enacted, and I’m interested to see the effects they will have on the future of our marine ecosystems.

There has been some confusion about the new rules. I wrote about the regulations effecting Laguna Beach here, but for complete info on all Southern California marine protected areas go to MarineMap, click “MPAs, Arrays and Proposals” at top right, check the first box in the pop-up. This is a great interactive map with protected areas and their regulations, as well as all kinds of other info in layers.

Despite inaccurate statements by some, marine protected areas will not restrict swimming, surfing, snorkeling, kayaking, scuba diving, sailing or other recreational activities besides fishing. Basically the change means a lot more protections to a lot more of the Southern California coast, which is a great thing.

OWOO science advisor Sylvia Earle on the importance of ocean protections

Other MPAs have gained attention for their big environmental rebounds. Studies show that there are more fish biomass and more kelp forests inside the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary, than just outside of it, and that the greatest difference between abundance inside and outside the reserve is in species targeted by fishing. Fish biomass in Cabo Pulmo National Marine Park increased by 460%, and top predator biomass increased by 1070%, between 1999 and 2009.

A lot of us hope to see big rebounds in marine life here at home as well. Despite the new MPAs, we still have work to do. Two areas that need it most: citizen involvement and water quality.

As Laguna local and ocean protection activist Jinger Wallace said, “If the community gets behind this and really is inspired and motivated to protect these areas, we stand a much better chance of seeing improvements in Laguna because we have the habitat.”

In order for MPAs to accomplish their goals of restoring our marine ecosystems, they need community involvement. Some commercial fishermen opposed to the new MPAs vowed they won’t work because they don’t have the support of the fishing community. Though an exaggeration, this holds some truth. Enforcement agencies are overwhelmed. Fish and Game wardens can’t be everywhere in the ocean, 24 hours a day, and poaching does happen when they’re not around. (The seizure of 47 illegal lobster from two poachers inside the Heisler Park Marine Reserve this week is a clear example of that.) Fishermen are often the ones alerting wardens about violations, because they are on the water everyday. Groups like Orange County Coast Keeper are stepping up by training people to be the eyes and ears on the beach, watch what is going on, compile data for future planning. Other Coast Keeper chapters up and down the coast, and Heal the Bay are doing the same. Laguna Ocean Foundation trains and staffs paid and volunteer tidepool docents at high traffic areas in Laguna Beach, who educate visitors on the tidepools and warn them when they see violations happening. While they have no enforcement authority, it is powerful to simply have someone watching. It’s just as powerful, when you’re at the beach, to set a good example for visitors by following the rules, not taking things from tidepools, and not fishing illegally. That’s where we all come in.

If you want to do something to help, volunteer with organizations like these – if nothing else, it’s a day at the beach.

The other area is water quality. MPAs don’t do much to require cleaner water, and sorting out who is responsible for pollutants coming from hundreds or thousands of miles up stream is tricky at best. But we can be more conscious of what we do locally. When we put things down the drain they don’t go to a place called “away.” They go to a treatment plant, and then the ocean. Using excessive water when doing the dishes, showering or other activities, adds to what is coming out of streams and outfall pipes. Avoid using harsh chemical cleaners at home, and harsh chemical insecticides and fertilizers in your garden. Eat organic food that doesn’t use such chemicals in its production – agricultural runoff is a significant source of ocean pollution.

Funding for water quality monitoring is being cut. If you want to do something to help, you can donate to Surfrider Foundation which works with local high schools to conduct water quality monitoring.

The finalization of the South Coast MPA’s was a big step in legal terms. To make it a reality on the ground and in the water, we need people to be involved in what happens next.

The New York Times multimedia piece on the new MPAs

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