Robert Warner, chair, Department of Ecology, Evolution and Marine Biology, UC Santa Barbara
Regional collaboration is nothing new to UC Santa Barbara marine biologist Robert Warner. As a member of the Partnership for Interdisciplinary Studies of Coastal Oceans, he works with scientists from UC Santa Cruz, Oregon State University and Stanford University in the common pursuit of preserving healthy ocean waters. The PISCO group studies the effects human activities are having on the oceans' abilities to sustain animal and plant diversity, maintain water quality, and to survive environmental stress such as global warming.
Marine reserves -- protected ocean waters where fishing, mining and dredging are prohibited -- provide one powerful means of lessening human impact on coastal waters and could mean survival for species facing warming ocean waters. Yet less than .01 percent of the earth's oceans are restricted reserves.
Warner's research underpins the importance of establishing a network of small marine reserves along the Pacific Coast. Central California has such a network and work is in progress to establish a network in Southern and Northern California.
"The ocean is there for the public good," Warner says. "Nobody owns it or has exclusive rights to it."
Yet balancing the needs of all ocean users is one of the major hurdles scientists and policy-makers face in designating protected reserves.
In a PISCO survey of 124 global marine reserve studies, scientists documented significant benefits in even the smallest reserves of less than 1 square mile. Not only the quantity of animals and plants increased but also the size and diversity. Body size increased an average 28 percent, the number of species increased 21 percent and the mass of animals and plants grew 446 percent. The bigger the fish or invertebrates, the more offspring they produce. Eventually the larger populations of young move outside the reserve area and can actually benefit commercial and recreational fishing.
In a study of the Anacapa Island marine reserve, off the coast of Santa Barbara, researchers documented a reserve environment's resilience during periods of environmental stress. When a series of El Niño events raised water temperatures, kelp beds in unprotected waters disappeared. In the reserve, the kelp habitat withstood the climatic changes.
"As we get into an era of a warmer globe, it's not just that things get warmer," Warner warns. "Things fluctuate more. If marine populations are already low, there's a chance some species will get down to zero. Populations in marine reserves are high. They won't get down to zero."
The current practice of regulating single species hasn't proved as effective, Warner says, as ecosystem-based resource management where each species and each habitat's connectedness is recognized. Current management policies try to protect species by restricting the numbers that can be harvested, establishing size limits and fishing seasons or temporarily closing areas to harvesting. It's time to try new methods, Warner says: "We're going to have to consider ocean zoning, so some areas are set outside the limits for fishing. I think there should be fishing, but not everywhere."
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