Ocean Optimism: Marine Protected Areas Lead the Way

A few weeks ago in our Ocean Optimism class, we focused on the topic of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs). The main purpose of MPAs is to establish protected and preserved areas in the ocean. As defined in our class, a MPA gives areas such as cultural and historical sites, fisheries, places of high biodiversity, and habitats of unique ocean species some degree of protection.  Examples of these areas include no fishing or drilling zones and cultural sites such as shipwrecks and artifacts beneath the ocean’s surface. The establishment of more MPAs throughout the world is a hot topic of discussion among many marine biologists today. Within our discussion, we focused on Cabo Pulmo National Park, a MPA in Baja California Sur, a collection of marine reserves surrounding the Big Island of Hawaii that are intended to help save the Yellow Tang fish population, and the West Coast Rockfish.


Cabo Pulmo

Few examples demonstrate the complexities of ocean conservation better than Cabo Pulmo. This MPA off the coast of Baja California Sur has seen dramatic results since its creation in 1995. Cabo Pulmo stands out among conservation efforts because it was created as a result of local fishing residents who lobbied their government in order to protect their ocean and source of income. This marine protected area now acts as a safe haven for the fish and other marine creatures. Despite its success, Cabo Pulmo faces new pressures. Fishing has boomed on the edges of the MPA (known to biologists as the “spillover effect”), and as a result, tourism has increased. This has increased human contact with the fish, calling for extra attention from the community in order to continue enforcing and protecting the reserve. Cabo Pulmo will be closely watched to see if their successes can withstand the pressures that come with renewed life. Despite these uncertainties, Cabo Pulmo remains an example of an optimistic oceanic progress. See amazing images of Cabo Pulmo here!

Yellow Tangs in Hawaii

The Hawaiian Yellow Tang. Photo: Wikipedia

The Hawaiian Yellow Tang. Photo: Wikipedia

Dr. Brian Tissot has studied this suite of marine reserves on the western coast of the Big Island of Hawaii since its creation in the 2000s. In the early 90’s, marine aquarium traders overfished yellow tangs, a truly treasured fish species. Annually, approximately 250,000 yellow tangs would be captured and sold into aquariums. After realizing the drastic decrease in the population of the yellow tangs, the state of Hawaii decided to take action by establishing nine “No Collection Zones” in 35% of the areas in which marine aquarium traders caught this species. As a result of the nine “No Collection Zones,” the population of the yellow tangs has increased by >57%. Unexpectedly, marine aquarium traders were able to capture 70,000 more fish than in previous years due to the spillover effect described above. Spillovers occur when the protection of the MPA results in fish or invertebrates moving to the areas just outside of the of the protected area. The area just outside of the MPA is where many fishermen catch the yellow tangs, but this is done without depleting the population like before because the protected area still has many more yellow tangs that are within its borders that will maintain the population. Our professor, Dr. Hill, recently spoke to Dr. Tissot, who updated us on current news from this marine protected area: “Things just keep getting better over time!”

West Coast Rockfish

Rockfish. Photo: Wikimedia commons

Rockfish. Photo: Wikimedia commons

The West Coast Rockfish population has been facing a variety of environmental threats in past years. Overfishing is one of the main threats facing Rockfish, leading to the depletion of the species from previous years. Recently, however, it has been observed that their population is steadily growing in certain parts of Southern California. This increase in population is at least in part due to large marine protected areas in Southern California. West Coast Rockfish and other species will spawn or mate within the marine protected area and then the larvae will drift outside of the MPA and develop, thus building up the population of these various species outside of the protected areas.

Reasons for Hope

We agreed that the impact of MPAs depends on their size and prevalence along the coast. While one large marine protected area may be easier to manage,  small marine protected areas contribute to the diverse protection of multiple marine species. The ultimate goal of marine protected areas should be to protect a variety of marine species while still allowing fishermen and the public to have ocean access.

This blog was written by students in the UC Davis First Year Seminar: Ocean Optimism