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In June 2003 a report by the independent Pew Oceans Commission brought into sharp focus the destruction of ocean habitat and collapse of marine wildlife populations that is happening as a result of the effects of human populations.The commission also offered a blueprint for protecting and restoring ocean life. But can a situation so grim be turned around? Absolutely. The following brief case studies illustrate courses of action such as those the commission recommends, and the results they can achieve.


Recovery of North Atlantic Swordfish Through Quota Cutbacks and Nursery Area Protections

In the 1980s and 1990s, overfishing and ineffective management sent the North Atlantic swordfish population into drastic decline. By 1996, an international scientific assessment found that the species had shrunk to 58 percent of what biologists consider healthy levels. Prompted in part by NRDC's and SeaWeb's "Give Swordfish a Break" campaign, the U.S. government in 1999 brokered a 10-year international recovery program that reduced catches and encouraged nations to protect young swordfish. In U.S. waters, the government closed swordfish nursery areas to longline fishing to protect juvenile swordfish at times of the year when they congregate. When North Atlantic swordfish were next assessed, in September 2002, scientists found that the population had recovered to 94 percent of levels considered healthy. LEARN MORE

Recovery in Georges Bank Through the Use of Closed Areas

In December 1994, the U.S. Commerce Department closed three large areas of New England's Georges Bank to all fishing except lobster traps in an effort to shore up plummeting cod and haddock stocks. In 1998, the government closed two additional areas in the Mid-Atlantic. These actions gave fish in those areas a chance to rebound from both heavy trawl nets and scallop dredges (which had been devastating invertebrates that sustain groundfish) and from the scallop industry's practice of discarding groundfish that it catches incidentally.

For nearly five years, more than 6,500-square-miles of Georges Bank's sea floor were undisturbed. Sea scallops thrived once the dredging stopped, increasing to record sizes and densities. From 1994 to 1998, scallop biomass in the three Georges Bank closed areas increased by 15 to 20 times. Areas outside the closed areas benefited as well. In 2001, fishermen harvested a record high 20,000 metric tons of scallops from the region, 44 percent more than the previous record high in 2000. Georges Bank yellowtail flounder and haddock populations have resurged as well, and scientists have also identified increases in crabs, anemones, sea urchins and other invertebrates. That's the good news. The bad news is that cod -- New England's signature groundfish -- continues to struggle. The population of Georges Bank cod is unlikely to recover for several decades and scientists worry that it is still susceptible to a near-permanent collapse, which the Canadian cod industry experienced in the early 1990s.

Though fishing restrictions have helped in Georges Bank, New England fishery managers are under pressure to lift or weaken restrictions. The New England Fishery Management Council now allows mid-water trawling for herring in the closed areas, since mid-water trawl gear does not touch the sea floor. In 1999 and 2000, the council decided to open portions of the Georges Bank closed areas to scallop dredging because there are dense populations of the highly valuable shellfish.

Protections for Pacific Rockfish Through Limits on Bottom Trawling

The Pacific rockfish, a family of more than 60 species of colorful fish uniquely adapted to the rocky reefs, rugged canyons, pinnacles and kelp forests of the Pacific coast, are in trouble. Marketed as Pacific red snapper or rock cod, they are popular with consumers. Once greatly abundant, several populations are now so depleted that scientists consider them at risk of extinction.

Rockfish have several characteristics that make them susceptible to overfishing, particularly to bottom trawling. Bottom trawlers drag weighted nets across the ocean floor, disrupting ocean floor habitat favored by these fish and catching whatever is in the net's path. Rockfish live as long as 100 years, are slow to mature, and may reproduce successfully only once a decade. Because different species school together, powerful trawl gear catches the vulnerable types along with the more productive, and these deep-dwelling fish cannot survive the trauma of being caught and tossed overboard.

To rebuild depressed rockfish populations, in 2002 the Pacific Fishery Management Council put large ocean areas off limits to bottom trawling and other types of fishing on the ocean floor. Previously, the council had simply lowered the amount of depleted rockfish that could be brought to port, while continuing to allow fishing in their habitat. As a result, these fish continued to be caught and discarded dead in great quantities. The area closures reduce that discard and provide an extensive refuge for depleted populations. West coast trawlers have also initiated a program to reduce the size of their fleet by buying and retiring boats of willing sellers. In combination, these steps create real potential for recovery.

The closures are temporary, however, and restoration may take decades. Maintaining closures big enough to be effective and halting fishing when discard limits are reached will be critical if the region is to succeed at bringing back rockfish and the fisheries that depend on them.


Marine reserves, or fully protected ocean wildlife and habitat areas, have proven to be an effective way to help safeguard healthy ecosystems around the world. Such protected areas generally have more fish, bigger fish, and a higher diversity of species than fished areas in similar habitat. Studies show that fish in these areas are, on average, almost twice as large and three times more abundant than in similar areas open to fishing. In U.S. waters, marine reserves have been established in Hawaii, California and Florida. The ability of reserves to shelter large fish is particularly critical to ocean ecosystems. As fish grow, their ability to produce eggs increases exponentially so that, in terms of producing new fish, one large fish can be worth a hundred smaller fish. Below are four examples of marine reserves in the United States. LEARN MORE

Dry Tortugas Ecological Reserve, Gulf of Mexico

The Dry Tortugas Ecological Reserve, created in 2001 by the federal government and the state of Florida, covers 150 square nautical miles, including portions of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and Dry Tortugas National Park. (The Dry Tortugas sits at the western tip of the Florida Keys, 70 miles from Key West.) The reserve encompasses coral reefs, including the 9,000-year old coral heads of the " Sherwood Forest," seagrass meadows and a diverse assemblage of other ocean habitats. The Tortugas boasts the most dense coral cover and cleanest waters in the Florida Keys. Strong currents from across the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean contribute to high biodiversity, and the islands are home to North America's only breeding colonies of magnificent frigate birds and sooty terns.

The Tortugas reserve was created both to protect its rich ecology and to provide regional benefit, including to commercial fisheries. Even though relatively pristine, the Dry Tortugas has been degraded by overfishing, destruction caused by fishing gear and anchors, and a steady increase in visitors. Where Tortugas groupers once averaged more than 20 pounds, the average size is now under 10 pounds. The Tortugas contain significant spawning areas for snapper and grouper, including around the so-called Riley's Hump. Scientists and managers believe that the reserve not only will allow local fish and crustacean populations to rebound, but that ocean currents will carry larvae and eggs out of the area into the heavily-fished Keys and north along the Atlantic coast as far as Georgia.

Today, commercial and recreational fishing is prohibited within the Dry Tortugas reserve and other uses are strictly regulated. Scientists already have seen indications that the reserve is having a positive impact. For example, it has quickly become a refuge for large pink shrimp, whose numbers and size are rising dramatically. Scientists also are seeing increased size, number and diversity in other crustaceans and fish species, including lobster and yellowtail.

Channel Islands Marine Reserve, California

In 1998, a group of local sport fishermen came before the California Fish and Game Commission and asked them to place some of the waters around the Channel Islands into no-fishing zones. Four years later, the commission voted to do just that, setting aside 175 square miles of ocean to protect the ocean wildlife and their habitat. This network of underwater preserves is the largest on the West Coast and may become the largest marine protected area in North America if the federal government designates complementary reserves outside the edge of state jurisdiction.

Only 20 miles west of Los Angeles, the Channel Islands are sometimes called "California's Galapagos." Wild and rugged, they rise up out of the Santa Barbara Channel, their steep underwater hillsides offering food and shelter to a staggering array of fish and other sea creatures, including red and green anemones, purple corals, pink sheephead fish, orange sponges and kelp forests. Grey and blue whales are common visitors, as are migrating seabirds and pods of Rizzo's dolphins that snack on squid. Despite the presence of both a national park and a national marine sanctuary, the area was threatened by overfishing because neither entity had the authority to manage fishing.

Implementation of the Channel Islands reserve began in April 2003, so the results of this new protection will be seen in coming years.

An Accidental Reserve: Kennedy Space Center, Florida

In 1962, the federal government closed an estuary inside the Kennedy Space Center to all boat traffic. The move was intended to secure the launch site, not to protect marine life. But it has saved fish populations just the same.

Kennedy sits in the middle of the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge on Cape Canaveral. Covering 218 square miles of land and water, the refuge provides both a large buffer zone for the center and a popular recreation spot. Within the space center's property, nearly 15 square miles of water have no public access. In 1994, the refuge closed an adjoining 15-square-mile section to motorboats to protect the resident manatee population. Hundreds of endangered West Indian manatees live and breed in these areas, as do green sea turtles. Fishing and waterfowl hunting are still permitted in the manatee closure area, but only from rowboats or canoes. Thus, the reserve inside the space center's property is buffered by the large neighboring manatee closure, which reduces boat traffic and fishing activity.

A four-year study published in 1999 found a greater diversity of fish inside the space center closed area than in the immediately adjacent fished areas. Sea trout, striped mullet, black drum and red drum -- all popular game fish -- were more plentiful and larger in the protected areas. Fish also swim outside the reserve's borders -- to the benefit of fishermen. One striped mullet tagged inside the reserve was caught 75 miles away. A follow-up study, published in Science in 2001, found that although the area adjacent to the reserve covers only 13 percent of the Florida coastline, it produced more than 50 percent of world-record catches for black and red drum. Although created for purposes other than conservation, studies confirm that this reserve produces clear benefits for fish and the sport-fishing public.

Northwest Hawaiian Islands Reserve

In December 2000, President Clinton announced an executive order establishing the Northwest Hawaiian Islands Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve, protecting 70 percent of the nation's coral reefs as well as seamounts, banks and shoals that support an unusually rich diversity of species. The executive order created a protected area of nearly 100,000 square nautical miles (84 million acres) in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, the largest nature preserve ever established in the United States. It will protect the largest, most pristine coral reef ecosystem in the United States and thousands of animals. The remote and largely uninhabited chain of islands is home to more than 7,000 marine species, including the endangered Hawaiian monk seal, the endangered leatherback and hawksbill sea turtles, and the threatened green sea turtle.

The executive order specifically established restrictions on both commercial and recreational fishing by capping fishing effort at current levels and by designating approximately 5 percent of the reserve as a "preservation area" where it is illegal to fish or remove coral. The executive order also banned oil and gas and mineral exploration and development, and removing or harvesting coral.

The effects of the protections provided by the 2000 reserve designation have not yet been assessed.

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Pew Oceans Commission Report

last revised 6.4.03

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