Researchers take to skies to survey marine protected areas

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Faced with dwindling fish stocks and degraded habitat, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife created dozens of marine protected areas off Southern California two years ago. With these closures, state officials want people to stay out of about 15% of the region’s coastal waters in an effort to make the ocean healthier.

Emerging science suggests new insights about how commercial and recreational fishermen are responding to the change.

Marine protected areas, scattered like scrabble tiles on the sea between Santa Barbara and Mexico take up more than 350 square miles. The easiest way to see that territory fast is from the sky.

I tag along with Mike Sutton on a trip sponsored by Lighthawk, a group that offers free educational and scientific support plane flights. Sutton’s the head of the state’s Fish and Game Commission. He’s also an amateur pilot. He flies me and two researchers for the Santa Monica Bay Restoration Commission, Heather Burdick and Tom Ford, down to Dana Point and back.

You don’t find a lot of party boats out fishing for fun on a Tuesday. But you do see a lot of commercial fishermen heading to the office.

“You got two boats fishing here, looks like, and some inshore action right off the breakwater,” Sutton says. He rolls the plane side to side, so that Ford can identify and tally the fishing operations.

In the back seat, Burdick plots locations on a GPS device cradled in her hand. 

“Basically I’m back here with the unit waiting for whoever else is upfront to tell me what I need to put in and take the data point,” she says.

Every kayak and every boat is a data point. Over the years, Ford and Burdick have plotted thousands of points representing people fishing – from boats, from kayaks, even stand up paddleboards.

They’re taking data gathered during the two-and-a-half years before the MPA boundaries took effect and comparing that to data collected after. Ford says what he sees on the maps so far suggests how people are reacting to the closures.

“What we’re happy to state is that fishing is still occurring off the California coastline. The rocky headlands still being fished seemingly by the local folks who have been fishing them,” Ford says. “Meanwhile folks have moved their effort outside of the MPAs. So it’s seemingly just been perfect.”

Perfect, because the state law authorizing MPAs isn’t supposed to close down California’s nearly $200 million commercial fishery. Advocates for sanctuaries point to one measure of success: last year, the state issued fewer than 150 tickets to fishermen for violating marine protected area boundaries.

“Oh, I know guys are scared of getting a ticket,” says Bob Bertelli, a sea urchin diver who represented fishing interests during the state-run process of creating marine protected areas. “Even if they’re risk takers they’re scared of getting a ticket.”

Bertelli notes that fishermen have long been skeptical of the science behind the MPAs' creation. Anglers’ groups sued to block the effort with little success and great cost.

Bertelli suspects another reason nobody’s fishing inside many of the protected areas is that’s not where the good fish are.

“We don’t know whether MPAs are working,” he says. “We’re going to know a little bit in 5 years but it’s probably going to take longer than that.”

Protecting areas in the ocean, not just one or two species, is an idea that goes back centuries. But California’s strategy leans on data to make choices for highly populated areas. That’s still pretty cutting edge, says Tom Ford.

“The EU now has marine spatial areas off of their coasts. Australia has effectively zoned the Great Barrier Reef,” he says. “So as all these efforts move forward we have the ability to learn from each other around the planet.”

Ford and Bertelli agree about at least one thing: they say it’s good that the state’s willing to modify the protected areas if need be. That’s why the emerging science here and around the world matters so much to them both.

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