The law, curiously, does not mention the words marine, ocean
or sea. But should wilderness should stop at lands end? The national network of
parks and wilderness protects creatures of the forest, but what about denizens of the
There is no doubt that the sea's biological diversity and
integrity are in trouble, and thus so are we, according to the worlds leading marine
and conservation biologists. As vital components of our planet's life support systems,
marine life protects shorelines from flooding, breaks down wastes, moderates climate and
maintains a breathable atmosphere. Marine species provide a livelihood for millions of
people; and food, medicines, raw materials and recreation for billions. Marine species are
at risk from overexploitation, physical changes in ecosystems, pollution, the introduction
of alien species, and global atmospheric change.
The world's catch of ocean fish peaked in 1989 and has been
declining in most oceanic regions since. the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization
(FAO) estimated in 1997 that among the world's main fish stocks, 44 percent
are fully exploited and are therefore producing catches that have reached or are very
close to their maximum limit, with no room expected for further expansion. About 16
percent are overfished and likewise leave no room for expansion. There there is an
increasing likelihood that catches might decrease if remedial action is not undertaken to
reduce or suppress overfishing. Another 6 percent appear to be depleted, with a resulting
loss in total production, not to mention the social and economic losses derived from the
uncontrolled and excessive fishing pressure, and 3 percent seem to be recovering slowly.
Fisheries in the Northwest Atlantic, the Southeast Atlantic and the Eastern Central
Atlantic reached their maximum production levels one or two decades ago and are now
showing a declining trend in total catches. In the Northeast Atlantic, the Southwest
Atlantic, the Western Central Atlantic, the Eastern Central Pacific, the Northeast Pacific
and the Mediterranean and Black Seas, annual catches seem to have stabilized, or are
declining slightly, after having reached a maximum potential a few years ago. "The
declining and flattening catch trends in these areas are consistent with the observation
that these areas have the highest incidence of fully exploited fish stocks and of stocks
that are either overexploited, depleted or recovering after having been depleted,"
the FAO reports.
The Grand Banks fishery off the shallow coast of Maine, after
350 years of commercial exploitation of haddock, cod and flounder, has all but lost these
species. In May 1998, the Northeast Fisheries Management Council closed 884 square miles
in the western Gulf of Maine to protect Atlantic cod.
"The depletion of the world's most popular fish species
has set off three trends, each of which is adding to the oceans' troubles," says
Peter Montague, author of Rachels Environmental and Health Weekly report.
"Fisherman are adopting new technologies that allow them to fish in deeper waters,
and they are fishing lower on the food chain."
Last year, during the U.N. International Year of the Ocean,
more than 1,600 leading marine scientists and conservation biologists from 65 countries
urged us to take that next step, to translate the Wilderness Acts ethic from land to
sea, to create an undersea Yellowstone without all the tourists, of course. They
called for an end to activities that are destroying marine species and ecosystems. In
theory, at least, the worldwide decline of ocean species might be stemmed if enough waters
were set aside from all fishing and oil and gas development, just as wilderness lands are
off-limits to all logging and hunting.
At present, about ¼ of 1 percent of the worlds oceans
are protected from exploitation. The 1,600 scientists called for expanding these areas
80-fold -- their goal is to protect 20 percent of the world's oceans by 2020. This has
prompted a raging debate, fueled in large part by speculation. Scientists say information
about ocean ecosystems especially here in the Northeast Pacific is meager.
Just how much virgin ocean do we have left? How much seabed has not been damaged by
humans? The problem is no one really knows. But among scientists who urge caution, who say
that it's better to err on the conservative side than to risk losing more fisheries, ocean
wilderness makes sense.
We can already see serious and unmistakable signs of
adversity, and not just with the salmon and its epic struggle. The story here concerns
rockfish members of the scorpionfish family that encompasses some 60 species
inhabiting the Northeast Pacific. Some of these spiny predators may be old enough to
predate the Civil War. Some -- we don't know exactly how many -- rockfish species are in
trouble from overfishing off California, Oregon, Washington and British Columbia. The
bocaccio is down as much as 98 percent over the last couple decades.
Government and industry tried to address the decline without
closing areas of the Northeast Pacific to rockfish harvests, while still allowing fishing
12 months a year. Tighter regulations now seem inevitable, especially if the rockfish is
listed under the Endangered Species Act, which may happen. For fishermen, that might be
good news, if enhanced protection of species and their habitat mean that they can fish
like there is a tomorrow.
Deep Sea Harvests
West Coast rockfish live among the crags and crevices on the
Continental Shelf, a relatively shallow plateau extending tens of miles out to sea. Bottom
trawl technology enables fishing the Shelf as deep as a mile. Nets fitted with rollers are
dragged across its floor, removing everything of any size. I saw rollers on one trawler in
Newport, Ore., made of airplane tires. Though the research on effects in the Pacific is
still relatively sparse, the early evidence is damning. One study in Californias
Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary showed that tiny but important benthic organisms at
the bottom of the food chain are scarce in number in areas that are heavily trawled, and
plentiful in areas that are lightly trawled.
To Elliott Norse, that sounds like a clearcut. Norse, director
of the Marine Conservation Biology Institute in Redmond, Wash., is an expert on both
forest (he is author of Ancient Forests of the Pacific Northwest) and marine
ecosystems. Bottom trawling, he says, is like clearcutting a forest and then converting it
into a lawn. By declaring some areas off limits to the trawlers, Norse believes the
decline can be reversed.
"There are substantial areas of the sea that are so
biologically important that we should decide as a society that we want to protect
them," he says. "We did that on land starting 127 years ago. The areas receiving
protection are absolutely miniscule, and the protections are very weak. As poor a job we
are doing on land, we are doing much worse at sea."
Countries began designating marine waters for protection only
in the last few decades. Out front is New Zealand, where the undersea wilderness movement
began in the 1960s led by ecologist Bill Ballantine. Australia has created 300
"marine protected areas" that cover some 400,000 square kilometers. Probably the
best known is the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, the largest of its kind in the world. It
supports 1,500 species of fish, 350 species of hard coral, 4,000 species of mollusks and
240 species of birds. Some areas of the park allow most activities, including fishing.
Other areas allow some tourism, but no fishing. Some areas are completely out of bounds to
Another leader is Canada, which in cooperation with the
province of British Columbia has created 104 marine protected areas in B.C. The Pacific
Rim National Park Reserve, on the west side of Vancouver Island, is the only reserve that
bans fishing. Half of the reserve is waters of the open Pacific, around the Broken Group
Islands west of Barkley Sound. Parks Canada is thinking carefully about their future. The
growing interest in the islands, with a recent increase in summer visitors, has caused the
agency to consider the possibility of rationing visits. Under the new Canada Oceans Act,
the government seeks to build an extensive system of marine protected areas by 2010
through a series of coastal planning proceedings.
But Sabine Jessen of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society
says even this is not enough. "In B.C., 11 percent of the land is protected, and yet
less than 1 percent of the marine environment has any protection. This has to
West Coast states have taken some steps to protect marine
ecosystems. Several small nearshore areas in Puget Sound and off California coast are
off-limits to fishing, as are underwater pinnacles off Sitka Sound, Alaska, and pollock
areas around Steller sea lion rookeries in the Bering Sea. None of the experts interviewed
for this story were aware of any marine protected areas off Oregon. California bans bottom
trawling within 3 miles of shore.
The U.S. government is just beginning to consider
strengthening protection for the special places in its seas. It too has yet to establish
much true marine wilderness. Over the last 25 years, the U.S. created 12 National Marine
Sanctuaries on both coasts, in the Gulf of Mexico, and off Hawaii and American Samoa.
However, there is little that is unique about the way these areas are managed, other than
around coral reefs in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Some, including the
Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary in Washington, contain valuable commercial fishing
grounds that are routinely exploited.
As in the forest, the Endangered Species Act may have an
answer to poor management in the sea. The National Marine Fisheries Service is now
reviewing a petition to list 18 species of deep sea fish in Puget Sound that allegedly
have been overfished commercially. The petition may the catalyst for a broad coastwide
status review of rockfish under the ESA, similar to how the initial salmon listings led to
a regional review and a torrent of more listings. All of this activity may accelerate the
creation of refugia for these fish and the ecosystems that support them. It may also speed
up efforts to prop up coastal fishing economies already staggering from the loss of salmon
fishing. Various proposals call on government agencies to buy permits, gear and vessels
from out-of-work operators.
The idea of creating marine wilderness is denounced by some
national fishing groups, but two West Coast organizations, the Pacific Coast Federation of
Fishermans Associations and the Pacific Marine Conservation Council, say
conservation is essential to healthy fishing livelihoods and communities.
"The reality is marine protected areas are going to
happen," says John Fussell of the Pacific Marine Conservation Council, a group that
advocates conservation and sustainability, and represents commercial and recreational
fishing interests, conservationists and scientists. "If stakeholders want to have a
hand in it, they have to participate."
When fish disappear, so do profits. The West Coast rockfish
industry declined by 30 percent from 1995 to 1997, a drop from $37 million to $26 million
in the value brought to shore. "We have to have intact ecosystems to support
sustainable fisheries," says Glen Spain of the PCFFA. "Everyone knows the
horrors of rampant overfishing."
Imperiled Denizens of the Deep
Canary rockfish. Pacific Ocean perch. Bocaccio. Sound
appetizing? Youve seen these fish in your grocers seafood case, or ordered
them at Red Lobster. No, you havent? Perhaps you would recognize the name Pacific
Red Snapper, or Oregon Red Snapper, the market names for several varieties of reddish rock
fish caught in the Pacific from Mexico to Alaska.
The West Coasts declining rockfish fishery still
produces many of the fish fillets we commonly find at the supermarket. The rockfish group
is incredibly diverse (about 100 species worldwide and 65 in our Northeast Pacific Ocean).
Harvested for centuries by First Nation peoples, they have been targets of intense fishing
with bottom trawl gear since the 1950s. The Pacific Ocean perch rockfish was overfished in
the 1960s, and has still not recovered. Since the 1980s, many individual rockfish species
(belonging to the sebastes genus) have "decreased alarmingly," along with
the general rockfish population, according to Mary Yoklavich of the National Marine
The hardest hit? Possibly the bocaccio, one of the most
popular varieties. Sometimes called the rock salmon, it is a rockfish that has a long
history of exploitation in the West Coast groundfish fishery, particularly in California.
Weighing up to 20 pounds, it ranges from Kodiak Island, Alaska, to Punta Blanca, Baja
California. The largest concentrations are off southern and central California, and near
the Oregon-Washington border. The bocaccio frequents a range of habitats, including kelp
forests, rocky reefs, midwater, and open, low relief bottoms. It can be identified by its
large mouth and protruding lower jaw.
As recently as 1997, bocaccio has been among the top 10
rockfish species caught off all Washington ports and several ports in California,
including Monterey, San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego. The Pacific Fishery
Management Council reports that during the 1970s and 80s, annual catches of bocaccio
frequently exceeded 6,000 tons. In 1982, fishers landed a record 6,784 tons of bocaccio.
Since then, the catch has dropped precipitously. In 1996, the total catch was 668 tons.
In 1998, a National Marine Fisheries Service survey showed
bocaccio at 2-to-4 percent of its historical abundance. The American Fisheries Society has
nominated bocaccio as a candidate for "special concern" status on its list of
Endangered and Threatened Marine Fishes of North America, and the World Conservation Union
has identified the fish as a candidate for its Red List of "critically
endangered" plants and animals.
Nevertheless, last December the Pacific Marine Fisheries
Council which sets federal fishing regulations for coastal waters off California,
Oregon and Washington took steps to increase fishing pressure on bocaccio.
Several conservation groups protested in February in a letter
to the Portland-based council. "Now that new information has revealed an even worse
state of affairs for this species, the need for the Council to take decisive rebuilding
steps, and to take them immediately, is truly urgent," said the letter, signed by
representatives of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Environmental Defense Fund,
the Center for Marine Conservation and the Pacific Marine Conservation Council.
They called for emergency action to reduce the bocaccio catch
to zero, and threatened further action under the ESA if not satisfied. "The available
data would, in our view, clearly justify listing bocaccio under the Endangered Species
Act," they wrote.
It didnt take the National Marine Fisheries Service long
to react. Just one month later, in March, NMFS placed bocaccio on the federal
"overfished species list." There must now be a plan to halt the decline. For
now, the Council is encouraging all recreational and commercial fisherman to avoid
bocaccio as much as possible. A formal rebuilding plan could be adopted in November.
Avoiding bocaccio might be simple if it lived alone. But it
doesnt, and many other rockfish varieties in the nets are in nearly as bad shape as
bocaccio. Others are quite healthy. No one really knows for sure about most of them. There
are 53 species of rockfish caught in the Pacific fisheries. Of these, there is little or
no data for 45 species.
The health of another species marketed as red snapper, the
canary rockfish, is just now being reviewed by NMFS. Recent surveys show a
"noticeable absence" of old females (more than 20 years old), a disturbing fact
given that these older fish produce greater numbers of offspring. They show a consistent
decline over the last several years, and scientists are pessimistic about its
populations ability to stabilize. The canary rockfish has declined to about 8
percent of its historic abundance, according to a draft report issued June 1. Any species
that has dropped under 25 percent of its historical abundance will be listed as
Also in March, NFMS listed two other fish, the Pacific Ocean
perch and the ling cod as overfished. But the designation does not mean that ling cod
served in restaurants in fish and chips, is from an overfished stock. Ling cod considered
"overfished" off California, Oregon and Washington, meaning that at current
exploitation rates, the population is not sustainable. But in Alaska, the ling cod is
Whats not clear is whether reducing the catch is the
right response to the rockfish crisis. Research in Monterey Bay shows that bottom trawling
is removing a food source for these fish including tube worms, sponges, anemones,
hydrozoans, urchins, and other odd creatures. Up to 20 pounds of these animals can be
discarded as waste for every pound of commercial catch. Some remain on the ocean after
trawls have plowed through the sediment that had been their home. Only no-fishing zones
can protect the food chain as well as the endangered fish.
The National Marine Fisheries Service has taken no position
yet on such an idea, but its biologists there concede it has merit. They emphasize,
however, that they know very little about trawlings impacts, particularly in the
Pacific. "We need to develop a really well thought-out research program," says
W. Waldo Wakefield, a fisheries research biologist with the National Marine Fisheries
Some segments of the commercial fishing industry are not
willing to concede to any further restrictions. "We don't have a crisis of no fish,
we have a crisis of no science," Rod Moore, executive director of the West Coast
Seafood Processors Association, told a House committee in 1998.
"We don't know whether we are overfishing or leaving
millions of pounds of fish in the ocean while we starve to death on shore," he said.
"We have quotas, we have catch reporting systems, we have management tools, and we
have enforcement. What we don't have is the wealth of scientific data available
to New England. In effect, twenty years of scientific neglect, compounded by policy
decisions based on the fear that the New England example could recur, have created the
same social and economic problems on the west coast, even though our fish stocks may
be in good shape."
The NMFS Northeast Fisheries Science Center has approximately
120 employees working on groundfish, but only 28 dedicated to west coast groundfish in the
Northwest, Southwest, and Alaska Fishery Science Centers combined. The Northeast Center is
supported by two NOAA research vessels that conduct a complete resource survey every year.
On the West Coast, NMFS surveys stocks once every three years.
"Even within our region, groundfish research is the poor
stepchild," Moore said. "According to a recent analysis, during the last 10
years nearly $3 billion has been poured into Columbia River salmon recovery efforts,
yielding fewer fish returning to the Columbia River than when the program
started. As for groundfish, we maintained a thriving fishery on approximately 1 percent of
"Trawlers' have been fishing off our west coast over
sixty years and we go back to the same places over and over again," said Gerald
Gunnari of the Coos Bay Trawlers Association. "If we were destroying important
fish habitat, we would not still be fishing there."
Nevertheless, the time for marine wilderness apparently has
come. In January of this year, state and federal resource managers in Florida restricted
fishing and other activities in parts of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. The
joint state-federal management plan for the sanctuary would ban fishing and restrict
boating and diving in 10-14 square miles of the 2,800 square mile sanctuary.
The decline of rockfish on the Pacific Coast has spawned
increasing interest in the use of marine wilderness on this side of the continent. The
Pacific Fisheries Management Council, one of the eight regional councils around the U.S.,
has formed a marine reserve ad hoc committee. It met for the first time in May.
Some fishing groups see no-take zones as an economic hardship.
They will force some fishers to travel further to find fish, and cause fishing to increase
in areas outside the reserves, possibly leading to localized extinctions in those areas.
But reserves can also provide long-term benefits to the
fishing industry: more fish, more consistent harvests and the reduced probability of
closures due to overfishing. They can also protect species that are not targeted in
commercial fisheries, but are unintentionally trapped in nets.
Moreover, as Rod Fujita of the Environmental Defense Fund
points out, the purpose of marine reserves can go beyond the simple enhancement of
fisheries. "Perhaps the most robust purpose of a marine reserve designed primarily as
a fishery enhancement tool is to provide insurance for fishery management failures,"
he says. But reserves created for fisheries can fail if they are not planned carefully.
A reserve would have value even if it did no more than provide
a sense of marine wilderness and directly protect biodiversity. "A marine reserve
that includes a spectacular stretch of coast, kelp forests and rocky outcrops accessible
to divers could be successful... even if no fishery benefits accrue," according to
Even so, Elliott Norse says, marine reserves are not
sufficient conservation tools by themselves oil spills and other types of pollution
don't stop at the invisible line in the water surrounding a reserve, and many marine
organisms, such as whales, seabirds, and billfish are wide-ranging and depend on
environments outside limited reserves.
"If we want pieces of water that function pretty much as
they did before we came here, in which we can do scientific research, where we can learn
what the ocean is all about, if we want such places then we need to have marine protected
areas," Norse says.
"No place in the sea is safe just by dumb luck."