Catalina Island and Marine Reserves

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Posted by Dr. Bill on December 06, 2005 at 22:23:12:

The following is a message I posted on OCDivingNews in response to a message about the MLPA (Marine Life Protection Act) process in California. This process was intended to establish a network of marine protected areas based on the best scientific information, rather than through a "political" process in which other factors were included in the determinations.

As one whose scientific research in the early 90's looked at valid scientific reasons for establishing marine reserves using methods consistent with the MLPA later passed by the legislature, I am saddened to see what was supposed to be a strictly scientific approach to reserve designation be compromised so seriously by those who wish to consume resources.

Around Catalina our existing "reserve network" has been largely defined historically by recreational and educational use rather than strictly on the basis of the best science. I had hoped that scientists working with divers, fishers and others would identify future protected areas from an ecosystem perspective rather than a human perspective.

The Lover's Cove reserve was established primarily so the glassbottom boats would have an "ideal" ecosystem for passengers' viewing pleasure. Of course it is not that... the species composition there has been altered by continuous feeding. One need only look at the high concentration of opaleyes there to see this shift.

The Dive Park is only a de facto preserve rather than a recognized CDF&G reserve. We try our best to maintain a "no take" approach there. However even this "no take" reserve is subject to shifts in ecosystem composition. A number of species including horn sharks, swell sharks, angel sharks, shovelnose guitarfish, torpedo rays, etc., that are seen in adjacent areas are fairly rare finds in the park itself. I attribute this anecdotally to the high pressure from as many as 400+ divers in the park at a time. Even our non-consumptive use of the dive park probably has caused shifts in ecosystem composition and dynamics.

The reserve at Toyon Bay was designated largely for educational purposes as was the USC reserve near Blue Cavern Point. Although these are valid reasons for creating reserves, they are still based on human needs rather than what is best for the larger ecosystem and network around the island.

In my opinion the only reserves that really make sense from an ecosystem point of view are the invertebrate reserve along the West End's leeward coast extending from Lion's Head Point north, and the Farnsworth Bank reserve designated to protect the purple hydrocoral.

A really useful reserve system, from an ecological point of view, should look at issues like persistent ecosystem health, representative species composition, dispersal phenomenon and current directions, etc. My work suggested the best areas for reserves would be along the West End's leeward and windward coasts, the stretch from Cat Harbor to Indian Point on the windward side, the Salta Verde area between China Point and Silver Canyon, and a few smaller areas along the leeward coast between the Isthmus and the East End.

Such a reserve system would include some of the most stable (persistent or resilient) kelp forests around the island. These serve as surrogates for what should be among the healthiest kelp forest communities. In addition, the reserves "up current" (for example around the West End) serve as source areas for the maintenance of non-reserve (and reserve) areas downcurrent. Motile organisms like fish may swim with, and planktonic larval forms drift with, the current to other areas of the island.

It has been very sad watching the degradation of what was initially a very promising approach to a much-needed reserve network around our state's coast. People refer to the "self-interest" of non-consumptive users (no-take divers, photographers, etc) when "their" interests coincide best with the actual needs of the non-human ecosystem.

I have dived Catalina waters off-and-on for 36 years. During those decades I have seen serious shifts and declines in many species with the most obvious being the abalone, white sea bass, yellowtail, etc. Of course there have been some positive changes such as the return of the giant sea bass to our waters.

I say this as a currently non-consumptive diver (I stopped all take except for scientific purposes back in 1975) who has no problem with those who take legally. I formerly spearfished for food (and would do it again if need be) and even had a part interest in a commercial salmon fishing boat.

As divers we all need to understand our ecosystems, their relative health and what is needed to ensure that healthy ecosystems remain... not only for non-consumptive users but also for fishers (through spillover into non-reserve areas). But the primary reason we should do all this is not for our own human needs, but for the intrinsic value of healthy ecosystems for the species who live within them.

My favorite poet, Robinson Jeffers, spoke of a philosophy of "inhumanism" in which we break through the strictly human framework and into a more "cosmic" perspective where we see things from the standpoint of ecosystems, geologic time and astronomical distances.

Dr. Bill Bushing

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