Who defines what is sustainable? Is a seaweed fishery sustainable just because the seaweed harvesters say it is? How do they know their commercial activities do no harm to the seaweeds or the surrounding ecosystem? Where is their evidence? These are the claims that critical thinkers need to ask and seek answers to before leaping to conclusions about whether or not having a functional network of no-take marine protected areas is in the best, long-term interests of marine life and the diversity of human stakeholders who care about and use the ocean in many different ways (not just for commercial gain).
Commercial take of seaweed is growing rapidly, regulations are virtually non-existent, and some species are particularly vulnerable to overexploitation because of their ecology. We have hundreds of examples of how unregulated (or poorly regulated) fisheries and other commercial industries fare. You need only look to the declining availability of local fish in your local market, the limited (if any) fishing seasons for many local species and the current financial crisis to see how well self-regulation works. “Just trust us” just doesn’t sound like such a good idea anymore.
The Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) process, in contrast to the “just trust us” model, has been built on a foundation of the best available science. The networks of sites are proposed by a dedicated, hardworking and thoughtful group of stakeholders (including commercial and recreational fishermen, divers, conservationists, tribal representatives, educators, etc.) in a very public process with many opportunities for community input. Each proposed network is evaluated by a team of leading marine scientists to assess how well they conform to scientific guidelines (based on peer-reviewed scientific evidence). Each team of stakeholders then has the opportunity to revise their proposal several times in light of a wealth of scientific, socio-economic and public input to try and find an appropriate balance among these factors while meeting the minimum, scientifically based criteria for effectiveness.
Contrary to the assertions of many seaweed harvesters, access to the entire coast will not be denied to them and others interested in reaping commercial gain from the ocean; instead a few areas of the coast will be set aside as marine reserves, spaced so that they work together as a network to conserve intact ecosystems and allow organisms to disperse among them. These protected areas not only serve as “natural capital” protecting the plants, animals and seaweeds within their borders, but they can also replenish areas outside their boundaries where people will engage in commercial and recreational fishing and gathering. Additionally, they help compensate for some of the inadequacies of fisheries management in the face of inevitable uncertainties in stock assessments, unpredictable changes in ocean conditions and political pressures. Evidence for these outcomes can be found in the rich scientific literature on marine conservation.
Karina J. Nielsen, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Biology, Sonoma State University
Member of the Science Advisory Teams for the North Central Coast MLPA &
CA Ocean Protection Council