The century began with a great deal of optimism around marine protected areas as tools to protect the oceans. Two decades later, conservation goals and fishing interests remain at odds.
More than half of the United States is underwater: a sunken landscape of canyons, volcanic ranges, coral reefs, and kelp forests.
Unhealthy pteropod showing effects of ocean acidification including ragged, dissolving shell ridges on upper surface, a cloudy shell in lower right quadrant , and severe abrasions and weak spots. (Credit: NOAA)
“Significant hurdles”<p>As we've continued to burn fossil fuels and release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, the oceans have faced a triple threat: warming, acidification, and loss of oxygen. The <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/srocc/" target="_blank"> Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report</a> on the ocean and cryosphere states that since 1970, the oceans have absorbed roughly a third of carbon dioxide emissions, warming by a global average of one degree Celsius and becoming 30 percent more acidic. Marine heatwaves, which devastate kelp forests and coral reefs, have become far more frequent and intense.</p> <p>Oxygen-depleted "dead zones," caused by stagnating circulation and algal blooms, have ballooned in the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific Northwest. In hot coastal waters, marine viruses and shell disease have decimated valuable American fisheries: abalone in Northern California, and lobster in southern New England. Meanwhile, acidification eats away at the mineralized shells of invertebrates and weakens reefs, and may also have complex physiological effects on fish.</p> <p>Marine life has responded to these tumultuous changes by migrating, invading new ecosystems, or seeking refuge in deeper water.</p> <p>Not all the damage is climate induced. Even in the U.S., where most fisheries are sustainably managed, low populations and winnowed biodiversity—the results of decades of industrial overfishing—have eroded the resiliency of marine species to climate change. The fragmentation of Atlantic cod populations in New England, to cite the most famous example of fishery failure under rigorous management, has made the fishery's rebound in a warming environment an uphill battle.</p> <p>Offshore drilling for oil and gas has long posed existential threats to marine ecosystems, but offshore wind and hydroelectric power, a growing industry, may also have a variety of unintended and poorly-understood effects on wildlife, particularly on animals that use sonar or electromagnetism to navigate.</p> <p>To combat these emerging threats and impacts, marine protected areas, or MPAs, were developed as an ocean conservation tool in the 1990s. Their proponents argued that habitat in the oceans should be protected in the same way that national parks protect land, by blocking off large areas where disturbances to wildlife are minimized. The idea, bolstered by studies that showed creating marine reserves in biodiversity hotspots could help fisheries rebuild, gained traction internationally.</p> <p>In 2010, the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity set a target to place 10 percent of the world's oceans in MPAs by 2020. The U.S., for its part, has surpassed that goal, putting 26 percent of its exclusive economic zone into MPAs. There are currently nearly 1,000 MPAs in the U.S., encompassing an area greater than Alaska, Texas, and California combined.</p> <p>But not all of that space is protected equally, nor is it evenly distributed. Only 3 percent of U.S. waters are in "no-take" reserves that prohibit fishing, the most protective MPAs. Nearly all of those are in the remote marine national monuments around Hawaii and U.S. territories in the Pacific, established unilaterally under the Antiquities Act—far from the coast of the contiguous U.S., where most human-caused pressures are centered.</p>
Lobster pots. (Credit: Andrew Hall/flickr)
Red snapper. (Credit: Margaret Thompson/Florida Fish and Wildlife)
Essential fish habitat<p>The Endangered Species Act is the most powerful check on commercial fishing, but it leaves a large gray area where species that are not commercially fished are unprotected.</p> <p>"Most regimes that support fisheries management do not directly address elements of biodiversity until species have become endangered," said Auster.</p> <p>Species that may be rare but aren't endangered and aren't commercially fished—for example, deep-sea corals—don't have any legal protections. All the same, corals are irreparably damaged by trawls that drag along the ocean floor to scoop up bottom-dwelling fish and crustaceans. "These animals are hundreds to thousands of years old," said Auster. "Once destroyed, they're not going to recover in any meaningful period of time."</p> <p>In the case of corals, an argument can be made that in some places they provide habitat for commercially fished species, like orange roughy or grouper, and therefore constitute "essential fish habitat," areas that commercially-fished species use for spawning, breeding, foraging, and migrating.</p> <p>Essential fish habitat, designated by the eight councils that enforce the Magnuson-Stevens Act, is the legal bedrock for MPAs, but is just a prelude to actual conservation. On July 7, the Center for American Progress <a href="https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/green/reports/2020/07/07/487317/reform-strengthen-fishery-habitat-protection/" target="_blank">released a report</a> reviewing the protected status of U.S. waters. They found that, although functionally the entire exclusive economic zone in the U.S. has been designated as essential fish habitat, only a small portion has any restrictions on fishing, and of those areas, 75 percent are only minimally protected.</p> <p>The Councils are only required to in-state restrictions or protections for essential fish habitat if they deem it practicable to do so; many designations simply come with citations of actions that have already been taken to regulate fishing gear.</p> <p>The Center for American Progress report calls the Councils' distinction "toothless," and advises that Congress amend the Magnuson-Stevens Act to require that essential fish habitat be protected in some way.</p> <p>This isn't a new complaint. In 2000, several environmental groups sued NOAA and the National Marine Fisheries Service on the grounds that they violated the National Environmental Policy Act by not adequately assessing the detrimental impacts of fishing to essential fish habitat. </p> <p>They won the suit, sending the Councils back to the drawing board. "If fish could speak, they would be shouting for joy," Phil Kline, the fisheries director for the American Oceans Campaign, <a href="https://oceana.org/press-center/press-releases/oceana-wins-protection-fish-habitat" target="_blank">said at the time</a> of the settlement.</p> <p>The shouts would have been premature. "NOAA hasn't really held their feet to the fire," Alison Rieser, environmental attorney and professor at the University of Hawaii, told EHN. The courts didn't stipulate a timeframe for the Councils, and it took 14 years for the New England Fishery Management Council to amend its essential fish habitat designations. In the process it rolled back protections for nursery and spawning grounds for Atlantic cod.</p> <p>Within essential fish habitat, "habitats of particular concern" are meant to focus conservation efforts on wetlands and marine sites that are especially vulnerable to human activity such as coastal pollution, development, or damage from fishing gear. In addition to informing gear restrictions and fisheries closures, the habitats of particular concern designation carries weight in negotiations between the Councils and other users of the environment, like coastal development and offshore energy.</p> <p>But habitats of particular concern don't necessarily come with formalized protections of their own. "Just designating these areas doesn't do squat for them," said Brooke. "There's no automatic regulation that comes with any of these things."</p>
The Northeast Canyons and Seamounts National Monument is the only marine reserve on the Eastern Seaboard. (Credit: NOAA)
Marine National Monuments in the Pacific Ocean. (Credit: NOAA)