No-Fishing Zones

It’s very likely that very soon a conservation measure will close as much as 20 percent of Louisiana’s offshore waters — and perhaps inshore waters — to fishing.

A recent National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration discussion paper has brought home to Gulf of Mexico fishermen the momentum of the movement to create marine protected areas (MPAs) in the northern Gulf of Mexico. Rumors that President Bush was poised to create a Gulf of Mexico chain of MPAs by executive order were in circulation before his October order to designate permanent gamefish status for redfish and striped bass in federal waters.

MPAs have been called a variety of names, including marine fishery reserves, marine reserves, no-take reserves, zones or areas, conservation districts, non-consumption zones, sanctuaries and others.

The serious consideration of using areas closed to all fishing as a management tool arose in the U.S. in 1990 from a report delivered to the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council by its Snapper-Grouper Plan Development Team. The team was created to review the status of trends in the snapper-grouper fishery, and make management recommendations to the council. They concluded that area closures were needed to protect both ecosystems and the reef-fish fishery.

When first proposed, few people thought any agency would seriously consider closing areas to all fishing, but the idea kept coming up as a solution that other management didn’t handle. Now, a growing number of scientists and environmentalists are reaching agreement that marine protected areas deserve serious consideration.

The NOAA discussion paper suggests including virtually all hard-bottom features ringing the offshore waters of the Gulf in the proposed MPA chain. Off of northern Texas and Louisiana, this would include many of the offshore lumps or rocks, similar to, but apparently not at this time including, the Midnight Lump. Off of Mississippi and Alabama, steep-sided drowned reefs known as the Pinnacles would be included. The discussion paper poetically refers to these hard-bottom structures as “jewels” and oases linked to each other by currents.

The NOAA discussion paper lays out a blueprint for “How can it work.” It suggests that the president can immediately protect the areas in discussion by establishing a marine national monument under the Antiquities Act.

The Antiquities Act was passed by the Congress in 1906 to prevent “pot hunters” from removing prehistoric Indian artifacts (including clay pots) from federal lands in New Mexico. It authorized the president to act by executive order, bypassing congressional oversight. Although the intended use of the Antiquities Act was to protect small historic sites, the very first time it was used, President Theodore Roosevelt set aside Devil’s Tower in Wyoming as a national monument.

The lack of oversight has created some controversies. Congress has twice reduced the powers of the president under the act, in Wyoming in 1950 and again in Alaska, during the presidency of Jimmy Carter.

The discussion paper’s proposed plan would have NOAA designated to manage the monument. It further suggests that the presidential proclamation direct NOAA to establish the monument as a national marine sanctuary under the National Marine Sanctuaries Act.

In July, 2006, President Bush established the world’s largest MPA, the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument in Hawaii.

But the MPA movement crosses party lines. On May 26, 2000, President Bill Clinton signed Executive Order No. 13158, which directed each federal agency that has the authority to manage marine protected areas to “enhance and expand protection of existing MPAs and to establish and recommend new MPAs. The order called for all types of U.S. marine ecosystems to be included in these MPAs.

The executive order was prompted by a letter to Clinton from the Marine Conservation Biology Institute (MCBI). As MCBI requested, Clinton directed the creation of a “Marine Protected Areas Center” to develop a framework for a national MPA system, and provide federal, state and local governments with a clearinghouse for information, technologies and strategies to support the system. MCBI is calling for 20 percent of each marine ecosystem type to be set aside as MPAs by the year 2015.

On July 18, 2005, the National Marine Protected Areas Center established by Clinton held a public meeting in New Orleans called an “MPA Dialogue.” This meeting was held as part of a national effort to determine what cultural and natural marine resources, inshore as well as offshore, should be protected by MPAs.

Proposals to establish MPAs have produced very negative reactions from much of the national recreational fisheries leadership. At the RecFish 2000 symposium in San Diego, Mike Hayden, then president of the American Sportfishing Institute, went on record strongly opposing MPAs, calling them the most serious threat to recreational fishing being done under the disguise of marine conservation.

The Recreational Fishing Alliance has also expressed disapproval of MPA use. An editorial expressing strong concern over MPAs was published by Salt Water Sportsman magazine in August of the same year.

The International Game Fish Association in the July/August, 2000 edition of its International Angler magazine published an open letter (which 35 other organizations had signed) to Clinton asking him to reconsider his executive order. The letter called MPAs “ill-advised,” and stated that the right to fish is being taken from American families.

Individual anglers have also expressed passionate opposition to MPAs. At a 2001 public hearing on a proposal to establish a series of MPAs along the Atlantic Coast from North Carolina to Florida, a Florida fisherman said, “I want the same freedom to go out in the ocean as Christopher Columbus had. Use methods that work. Not this. All of us are willing to do all it takes to help the fishery, but when you start closing off pieces of God’s ocean, I can’t buy it.”

How did such a controversial fisheries management tool come into consideration?

Fisheries management techniques such as size limits, bag limits, quotas and seasons have been the methods traditionally used by managers to manage fisheries. Often, these don’t work to prevent overfishing. Trip and bag limits can be gotten around by taking more trips. Size limits can fail due to bycatch mortality (deaths) from other fisheries and from high mortality levels of released undersized fish. Some measures fail because of poor compliance or poor enforcement.

Also, traditional fisheries management does not protect biodiversity, the web of life in which all the different species present in an ecosystem affect and depend upon each other. Fisheries managers focus their attention only on those individual species that fishermen target and usually only after those species are in biological trouble. These single-species fisheries management programs can fail because they ignore interactions between all the species present, variations in the environment and the genetic impacts of fishing.

The fact that animals inherit from their parents genetic traits such as size, growth rate and even behavior is the basis for animal breeding programs that have produced faster horses, bigger, easier-to-handle cattle, woollier sheep and chickens that lay more eggs.

Unfortunately, things work backwards in fisheries. We catch the bigger, faster-growing, easier-to-catch fish and leave the smaller, slower-growing, harder-to-catch fish to spawn and produce more fish like them.

Scientists are becoming increasingly concerned that heavy fishing pressure over many fish generations managed under traditional regulations will produce inferior populations of fish. One estimate is that fishing pressure on wild fish may put one-fourth to one-third as much selective breeding pressure on fish as do breeding programs for domestic animals in agriculture. This pressure may have as much as 5,000 to 12,000 times as much genetic effect as the natural forces of nature have.

An increasing number of scientists are beginning to accept the view that setting aside good-sized blocks of waters for all fishing pressure may be the most effective way to prevent overfishing and to protect the genetics of fish populations. They view MPAs as providing many benefits:

1) Eggs and larvae from fish spawning in an MPA could restock areas outside of the MPA. It is estimated that putting 20 percent of red snapper habitat in MPAs would increase egg output 12 times over what it would be without MPAs. Scientists point out that one 24-inch red snapper will produce as many eggs as 212 17-inch fish.

2) MPAs can protect the stock of fish from genetic changes toward smaller, slower-growing fish caused by fishing pressure. With no fishing allowed, fish that have the genetic tendency to grow larger will be protected and allowed to mature and spawn.

3) MPAs can help protect against collapse of a fish stock if several years of poor spawning survival occur due to poor environmental conditions.

4) MPAs can provide protection against stock collapse if more traditional management does not work to prevent overfishing in a fishery.

5) MPAs can provide better data on the natural life cycles and death rates of fish, which will allow for better management in waters that are open to fishing.

6) In an MPA, fishermen using one type of gear would not be favored over fishermen using a different gear type. Since no fishing would be allowed, all fishermen would be treated equally.

7) With MPAs in place, more fishing with fewer restrictions could safely be allowed in waters open to fishing.

8) MPAs help prevent serial overfishing and bycatch overfishing. Serial over-fishing occurs when one species of fish is overfished and fishermen move to the next species, and then when it is overfished, on to the next, the whole time catching some of the protected species as bycatch, some of which dies upon release.

9) MPAs may provide some trophy fish production when large individuals wander from the MPA into fished areas.

10) MPAs provide unfished areas for scientific research and education, and also for ecotourism/diving, the fastest-growing type of international tourism.

11) Enforcement is easier, since anyone fishing is in violation.

Not all points on MPAs are positive and some trade-offs exists:

1) Harvest from areas permanently closed to fishing is lost, at least temporarily, until fish stocks increase in nearby areas open to fishing.

2) Benefits produced by MPAs will not be seen for a number of years after their creation. Time is required for overfished stocks or damaged habitat to recover.

3) Fishermen near MPAs will have to travel greater distances to fish, and someone’s favorite fishing area will be put off-limits, no matter where MPAs are placed.

4) Fishing pressure and crowding will likely increase in areas of open fishing.

5) MPAs are not likely to provide many benefits for migratory species like tuna, mackerel and dolphin.

Not just fisheries interests and scientists are party to the MPA debate. National and regional environmental organizations have wholeheartedly embraced the MPA concept.

The support of environmental organizations goes beyond the nuts and bolts of good management of fish populations for harvest. For them, MPAs set aside marine areas from the pernicious actions of humans, much like national parks do on land. Many environmental groups are calling for at least 20 percent of all waters, not just federal offshore waters, to be placed under MPA protection.

The entire issue of MPAs will be challenging for both recreational and commercial fisheries leadership. Some of the basis for recreational leadership’s objections to MPAs is that recreational fishing is allowed in national parks and refuges and, therefore, should be allowed in MPAs. Parks on land are protected from habitat-altering activities such as logging and mining, while minor activities such as fishing are allowed.

What is difficult for recreational fisheries leaders to accept is that in marine ecosystems, environmentalists and many scientists see fishing as the equivalent to mining and logging on land, as an ecosystem-altering activity. The very thing that MPAs are designed to do is to prevent fishing.

In November 1999, important fisheries scientists endorsed the idea of MPAs in Fisheries, the publication of the American Fisheries Society, the largest professional organization of fisheries scientists in the world.

They went beyond fisheries management alone as a reason for MPAs, stating that “the economic and social benefits of non-extractive uses of a reserve in many cases can exceed its extractive value.” The non-extractive uses they list are “… education, ecotourism, photography, recreational diving, fish watching, cultural activities, and wilderness enjoyment.”

Fishing is an extractive use.

About Jerald Horst 959 Articles
Jerald Horst is a retired Louisiana State University professor of fisheries. He is an active writer, book author and outdoorsman.