Sunday, September 26, 2010

Oregon's Proposed Marine Reserves: politics in getting MPAs in the US northwest

Marine Protected Areas, or MPAs, are aquatic reserves that are designed to restrict or prohibit activities deemed harmful to the marine environment. This has typically meant strict regulations on commercial or sport fishing activities but in some cases it has extended further to include other industrial or recreational activities. What is or is not allowed depends on where the reserve is located, its size, and the environmental and economic considerations impacted by the reserve.

Some reserves are quite large, like the South Pacific's multi-national Pacific Oceanscape or Hawaii's Northwestern Islands. Or they can be smaller and localized, like California's central coast marine sanctuaries that include the Channel Islands. But as a global total, marine protect areas cover only a mere one percent of the world's oceans.

The challenge with all MPAs is that they are the end result of a political process, and to deal with that can be as exciting as watching paint dry. Thought-provoking pictures and images and reams of scientific data are all part of the process in considering a marine reserve, but ultimately it boils down to government officials, conservation and environmental interests, and economic interests all trying to hammer out a compromise that the interested or effected parties can live with. And this can be a drawn out process at best.

Along the U.S.'s Oregon coast lies some of the country's most rugged and beautiful coastline and marine ecosystems. Rugged, but just as fragile as any tropical reef system when faced with overfishing, pollution, or any other man-made abuse. The state has been at work to determine the scope of possible MPAs along the Cape Arago area, developing as many as eight different proposals. A recommendation committee has been formed to whittle that number down to just three for public comment.

MPAs follow a process very similar to our legislative process in the U.S. A proposal is put forth, much like a bill, and then it goes to a committee where it is tweaked and amended, then brought forth for public comment, and then ultimately voted on - that's it in a simplified nutshell. Anywhere along the way, it can be derailed by lobby groups or public sentiment and pushed from an internal governmental process to an open ballot initiative, which can be a more drawn out and openly politicized battle.

In 2008, Oregon governor Ted Kulongoski asked the state's Ocean Policy Advisory Council (OPAC) for recommendations for coastal marine reserves. Thus began a lengthy process that included environmental groups and commercial and sport fishing interests. Oregon has several major commercial fishing industries, including salmon and crab, and so the delicate political maneuvering began to reach a suitable compromise. A committee was formed to try and develop proposals that would be at least close to acceptable to all involved.

As reported in the Oregon The World, OPAC committee chair Jim Pex said,
"There's a strong political force trying to get as much area in reserves as possible, and a strong force wanting no reserves at all. . . As with any group that is diverse, it takes time to get everyone to move in one direction."

To insure that the process would move forward, the committee adopted several interesting rulings:
  • No proposal would be considered that inhibited salmon fishing or crabbing.
  • There is no known biological problem that a marine reserve would solve at this time.
  • Additionally, funding for ongoing government research would be required to justify the reserve. No funding, no reserve.
Personally, I found these to be some interesting concessions. Once again, an economic consideration (salmon fishing and crabbing) was given a higher priority over the environmental benefit. If it's bad for business then nature will just have to wait. The problem is, as we have seen with other commercial fishing industries, nature doesn't wait; it continues to degrade until the industry collapses due to a decimated fish population.

The second point is a curious one. If the position is to not recognize any biological problem that a marine reserve would solve, then why have the reserve? Or is it a case of getting commercial interests to cooperate by not ascribing any problem specifically to their activities? MPAs have already been shown to increase sealife populations and this has even had a positive effect on commercial fish populations outside of the reserves boundaries. And as I have reported in previous posts, there is a growing issue of increased populations of Humboldt squid all along the eastern Pacific - a situation which possibly could be mitigated by marine reserves which would support an increase in natural predators to the squid (right now, Humboldt squid can pose a serious threat to a multi-million dollar salmon fishery).

In addressing the research funding issue, to insure that there will be continued research to justify any reserve established, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife is investigating ways of procuring funding, made difficult in a "no more government spending" climate. Non-governmental funding is being looked into through the use of foundations, trusts, and even federal appropriations.

OPAC is hoping that the final proposals will be brought before the public for comment by the end of the year. The process is an elaborate one and, as we have seen with other U.S. legislation, the end result can be considerably watered down from what was perhaps once envisioned. It certainly is not the "sexy" part of ocean policy but beyond all the fund-raising or issue-raising parties and events, after all the videos and slide presentations, this is what it boils down to: hard-fought negotiations and back room politics.

Hopefully the end result is something that provides the oceans with a real benefit. And, hopefully, mankind learns that by doing that, it too becomes a beneficiary.

Read about Oregon's MPA politics in The World.

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