Marine Life Protection

Silent Spill

Bay of Kotor, Montenegro
Michael McGinnis

The links between healthy maritime ecosystems and cultures are irrevocable — as the oceanic commons is depleted, unique maritime cultures are lost.

During the winter and spring of 2008, I spent six months as a Fulbright Scholar in the Republic of Montenegro, along the Adriatic Sea. This coastal marine area is part of the Mediterranean Basin. I lived in an old coastal village, the City of Kotor, which is surrounded by the southern-most fjord of Europe.

Michael McGinnis

The region’s coastal marine areas have a rich history of use and development. The loss of species associated with the Adriatic Sea is symptomatic of the changes that are occurring across the world’s oceans. The marine area is overfished and polluted, and the coast is developed and industrialized. The commercial fishes of the Mediterranean Basin are exploited by large industrial trawlers as marine resources are traded in global markets. The old maritime villages across the coastal Mediterranean Basin are fading away and are being replaced by a global tourism industry.

The decline in the health and integrity of the oceans should be recognized as a catastrophe. The level of coastal marine biodiversity loss is metaphorically akin to a silent spill insofar as society has not responded to the social, economic, and ecological factors contributing to the large-scale degradation of marine ecosystems. There is no simple acquiescence or institutional resolution to the dramatic changes that human beings are having on the world’s oceans.

Maintaining biological integrity means preserving elements of ecosystem processes, structures, and functions such as biological diversity. This will be more difficult in a context of climate change. Part of the management problem is the current scale of resource use of marine resources; resources are increasingly traded in global markets, and this scale of resource use has been shown to be unsustainable. Last week’s Meeting the Pacific column on the fishing of squid in the Santa Barbara Channel describes one example of the type of large-scale fishing taking place.

Overuse of coastal marine resources, along with climate impacts, are diminishing the life-giving values carried by healthy coastal marine ecosystems. One consequence is that human beings are more vulnerable to the insecurities brought on by both the dramatic decline in the productivity of coastal marine systems and the synergistic impacts of climate change. These multiple pressures are reflected in the decline of protein from the sea, e.g., wild fish.

We face other vulnerabilities, such as loss of soil and decline in agricultural production (notably of carbohydrates such as rice and wheat), drought, floods, the decline of clean drinking water and clean air. These are signs of humanity’s rising ecological insecurity.

A warming of more than 1°C, relative to the temperature in the year 2000, will constitute dangerous climate change, as judged from the likely impact on such criteria as sea level change and extermination of species. The sixth mass extinction of plants and animals is likely underway — nearly 50 percent of all species could disappear within the lifetimes of people now living on Earth. One in four marine mammals may go extinct. The last mass extinction took place 65 million years ago during the Cretaceous Tertiary extinction event.

At every level of the food web there is evidence of decline in the general health of the world’s oceans. The abundance of phytoplankton has declined to the point where major restructuring of the world’s marine ecosystems has occurred over the past century. Phytoplankton biomass is a critical indicator of the general health of marine ecosystems and a major producer of oxygen that all life depends on.

A recent study conducted by researchers at Stanford University’s Center for Oceans Solutions in 2008 looked at over 3,400 peer-reviewed articles that provide analysis of the primary threats to the Pacific Ocean. The study identified four primary threats described in the scientific literature — pollution, overfishing, habitat destruction, and climate change. As of November 2010, over 425 scientists from around the globe have signed a consensus statement corroborating the Center for Ocean Solutions’ findings.

There remains an urgent need to protect large areas of marine ecosystems from the impacts of fishing and other extractive activities, such as mining and offshore oil development. In an article published in the journal Oceanography, Jane Lubchenco, the current undersecretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and researcher Laura Petes warn, “Many ocean ecosystems appear to be at a critical juncture. Like other complex, nonlinear systems, ocean ecosystems are often characterized by thresholds or ‘tipping points,’ where a little more change in a stressor can result in a sudden and precipitous loss of ecological functionality.” One governmental response to the threat of such tipping points is the call to designate marine reserves to protect marine life.

In 1999, a complicated system of marine reserves off California included an area six thousandths of one percent, or 0.06 percent (14 square miles out of 220,000) of the Exclusive Economic Zone associated with the state. Based on the state’s complicated range of marine reserve designations and the inadequate level of marine protection, the California Legislature approved and the governor signed the Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA). Related state legislation includes the Marine Life Management Act of 1998 (MLMA), Marine Managed Areas Improvement Act of 2000, and California Ocean Protection Act of 2004. The passage of these state laws is an important step for Californians to begin to address a range of pressures and threats facing marine ecosystems.

The MLPA emphasizes the role of marine protected areas (or MPAs) as an important tool in coastal marine ecosystem-based planning, and it encourages a planning process that includes the advice and assistance of scientists, resource managers, experts, stakeholders, and members of the general public. Scientists at UCSB have played a major role in the planning process. Based on the MLPA Master Plan for MPAs, the MPA designation process is a regional, collaborative, and ecosystem-based approach to MPA planning. The planning processes were supported, in part, by the Resources Legacy Fund.

The next column will describe the 10-year planning process and the results or outcomes of this process. The state has designated a number of new networks of marine reserves in offshore California waters. The column will describe the politics of the planning process, and the level of marine life protection now designated for our marine waters.


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