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California’s role in protecting marine areas and sea life

In 2006, President George W. Bush sat down at a tiny table in the East Wing of the White House and signed a piece of paper that instantly created a truly massive national monument. It was larger than all the national parks combined, 46 of the 50 states, and the nation of Germany.

While some called it an environmental breakthrough, others grumbled that it didn’t really count as a park. That’s because unlike almost every other national monument to come before, it protected not land, but water.

The Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (tongue-twistingly renamed Papahānaumokuākea) Marine National Monument brought the concept of a “marine protected area” (MPA) into mainstream consciousness. Over the past couple of decades, governments across the world have scrambled to protect swaths of national waters from overfishing, oil extraction and other practices that damage the environment.

“MPAs started as kind of an insurance policy against management failure in the ocean,” says Steve Gaines, dean of the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management at UC Santa Barbara. “It’s sort of like what we did on land. In the face of lots of human impacts, people eventually get to the point where they say, ‘Hey, we’ve got to set aside some of these natural places.’”

California is seen by most in this new field as a leader of MPAs. And while Hawaii might have the biggest park, no other place in the country has so effectively combined research and policymaking into a series of underwater parks. And no one in the world has done it so close to a heavily populated coastline.

MPAs have been around for decades, but it was in the early 1990s that they really picked up speed in an organized way. Along with them came controversy. Fishermen, oil drillers and the shipping industry were afraid to lose access to parts of the ocean. No one was sure what to forbid or how to enforce it. And there was the question of whether they would even help sea life that much.

Regardless, in 1999, California took the plunge and created the Marine Life Protection Act. Previously, California’s protected waters were like most others — somewhat piecemeal, some barring fishing, others banning oil drilling. The Marine Life Protection Act essentially brought all these reserves under one roof and mandated a comprehensive plan to strategically protect the ocean resources of the state.

“It’s one thing to say we are going to create a giant no-take zone in the northwest Hawaiian Islands where you have like 15 fishing boats total,” says Gaines. “It’s an island out in the middle of nowhere. That’s fine, but what do we do in places where there are a lot of people?”

That is the genius and the challenge of the California system. It must balance the needs of the ocean with the needs of millions of users. To do that, the state has had to rely heavily on scientists like Gaines through a series of scientific advisory panels. This has given California’s ocean scientists — especially those at UC — a truly unprecedented opportunity to study, advise and shape marine protection.

Read Erik Vance’s full story on the UC Research website.

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