MPAs Are Here To Stay


Steven Hedlund

Published on
January 8, 2009

Ready or not, marine protected areas (MPAs) are coming to an ocean near you.

On Tuesday, a mere 14 days before waving goodbye to the White House, U.S. President George W. Bush designated three areas surrounding 11 remote islands to the far south and west of Hawaii as MPAs under the 1906 Antiquities Act. The U.S. Pacific islands now represent half of the nation’s MPAs. Defending his environmental record, Bush labeled the MPAs “the capstone of an eight-year commitment to strong environmental protection.”

But the president may have done more harm than help by preserving his environmental legacy. Closing off more than 195,000 square miles of the Pacific — plus the 138,000 square miles in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Bush set aside as an MPA two years ago — to commercial fishing fails to address what’s really damaging the  fragile ecosystem and only puts more pressure on other fishing areas.

The handful of commercial fishermen who bottomfish for snapper (onaga) and sea bass (hapupuu) and other species at depths of 300 to 1,000 feet in the recently designated MPAs do so in a sustainable manner, says Bob Fram, president of Garden & Valley Isle Seafood in Honolulu. The designation will do nothing to prevent derelict monofilament nets from drifting into the MPAs and getting hung up on and damaging coral reefs, as they already do, he adds.

What’s more, demand for sushi-grade fish isn’t going away anytime soon. Seafood that would have been sustainably harvested in the recently designated MPSs will be caught elsewhere, putting more pressure on what may already be a taxed fishery.

And just because a new administration is on the way into the White House doesn’t mean we’ve seen the last of MPAs in U.S. waters. Jane Lubchenco, vice chair of the Environmental Defense Fund, is in line to be the next head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which overseas fisheries management. EDF, which is funded by the $6 billion Pew Charitable Trusts, is a proponent of MPAs.

Environmental groups pushed for the recently designated MPAs to extend 200 nautical miles from the coral reefs and atolls (it’s only 50 nautical miles now). Who’s to say they won’t get their way when President-elect Barack Obama takes the helm on Jan. 20?

MPAs are the easy way out. Sustainability is a complex concept, encompassing all facets of ecology and human activity. Governments need to dig deep and determine whether closing off a swathe of the ocean to commercial fishing forever is really the best way to promote sustainable fisheries.

Best regards,
Steven Hedlund

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