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Marine protected areas (MPAs) have resulted in an increase in both numbers and size of many popularly fished species. For example, MPAs in New Zealand have supplied surrounding waters with larger and more lobster. In many places, this has led to what fishermen refer to as “fishing the line:” the best fishing usually occurs just outside the MPA border. This phenomenon has been observed elsewhere worldwide including Gulf of Maine, Florida and Australia.
Closer to Home: The Channel Islands
Only 20 miles west of Los Angeles, the Channel Islands are sometimes called “California’s Galapagos.” Wild and rugged, they rise up out of the Santa Barbara Channel, their steep underwater hillsides offering food and shelter to a staggering array of fish and other sea creatures, including red and green anemones, purple corals, pink sheephead fish and orange sponges. Despite the presence of both a national park and a national marine sanctuary, the area was threatened by overfishing in the 1990’s because neither entity had the authority to manage fishing. The 320 square mile marine protected area network around Channel Islands Marine Sanctuary, established in 2003, is the largest in the continental U.S.
The initiative to protect this productive food web grew from a 1998 proposal by a group of local sports fishermen to stem the trend of declining fish populations and reduced size of fish that they were catching. After years of mapping, public hearings and negotiating different plans, the California Fish & Game Commission approved a plan that protects 175 square miles of state waters, in addition to the 145 square miles of MPAs in federal waters. The marine protected areas now provide refuge for the many fish and wildlife species whose populations have been declining dramatically.
Although commercial fishermen initially disputed the creation of these no-take areas for fear of adverse economic impact, a review of MPA effects on fishing at Channel Island presented by the Department of Fish and Game in September 2006 concluded that despite new protections, fishing remained strong during the first few years following MPA implementation. The three top local fisheries, lobster, urchin, and squid actually saw major increased landings in 2005 (by 23 percent, 9 percent, and 31 percent respectively). Landing of popular recreation fish, like white seabass and rockfish caught at the islands versus elsewhere in California remained virtually constant. The Channel Islands rangers reported a 95 percent compliance with the Channel Islands MPAs to the California Fish and Game Commission, citing very few infractions.