The glare of the sun over the Pacific Ocean warms my cheeks as I listen to the sound of a majestic gray whale as it surfaces nearby. A peaceful scene, one could say. But the scene is ruined by a nearby fishing boat chugging along headed straight for us. Cue the longest and loudest horn blow our captain has ever made, followed by obscenities yelled by our guests and other sailors nearby watching. The whale plunges below as the insensible boat plows right overhead.
I am a naturalist on a whale-watching boat off the coast of San Diego Bay in California. I play a David Attenborough of sorts to locals and tourists from around the world anxiously awaiting the sight of a migrating gray whale. Scenes like these are not unfamiliar to the whales or me. This is part of a bigger problem that involves everyone.
Over the years, the number of marine protected areas has increased exponentially as efforts and interest in marine conservation have grown. These are enforced zones that restrict invasive human activities like boating or fishing. California started its involvement in 1999 and now has 124 marine protected areas encompassing 852 square miles of coastal water. There are now over 1,600 in the United States. Legal commercial fisheries in the U.S. add approximately $27 billion a year gross to domestic product, and coastlines contribute $595 billion through tourism and recreation.
California boasts incredibly biodiverse ecosystems including kelp forests, reefs and deep-sea submarine canyons. Kelp forests alone can be home to over 750 different native species. Every year thousands of gray whales and other migratory species use California’s water as a highway in their migration path. But moments like the ones described above threaten these animals. Recently, the California Fish and Game Commission busted a sportfishing vessel out of San Diego for illegal fishing inside protected areas, and it’s not the first time this has happened.
This practice is of utmost concern. Since marine protected areas can house some of the larger, more profitable species, fishermen often trespass the boundary line and fish inside. Worldwide, the statistics of illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing are staggering. My boat passes the bait docks on its way out of the harbor, and I see countless fishing vessels coming in and out from their trips.
Illegal sportfishing, poaching or taking marine life of any kind is a major threat to population recovery and survival. Studies on illegal fishing have shown that many fishermen practicing bad habits don’t bother to inform themselves of the rules, or they simply avoid them. Efforts by law enforcement, scientists, the public and law-abiding fishermen in California are undermined when acts like this occur. After all, what is a marine protected area if people don’t protect it?
Successful marine protected areas improve biodiversity and the ecological health of the areas they impact and can provide improved economic opportunities through tourism and sustainable fishing. Sport and commercial fishermen can frequent the outskirts of these protected areas to find flourishing populations thriving off the healthy ecosystems being protected. The healthy ecosystem attracts species that move in and out of the zones. Fisheries experts at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) are aware that most sportfishing industries are not happy about the growing number of marine protected areas because they make efforts to fish greater as boundaries expand. Nevertheless, the long-term impact of recovering populations will eventually be beneficial.
In California and worldwide, protecting these ecosystems is a huge task and important responsibility. The establishment of protected areas has been a very successful method of marine conservation but has not resolved all threats to marine biodiversity. However, of all the threats to our oceans—plastics, invasive species, pollution—this is the easy fix. California’s great oceanic highway for the gray whale will deteriorate if we do not actively work to conserve it.
Marine protected areas are not enough if there is no education and enforcement surrounding them. It is in everyone’s best interest that we let populations recover and allow for sustainable oceans for the future.